Too much choice

IT Conversations, which is one of my favourite ways of keeping myself awake at work, has a fascinating talk(hour-long mp3) by Barry Schwartz.

He thinks that the amount of choice we have makes us unhappy. Not much of what he says is very rigorously argued – there’s a lot of picking odd little examples, and not much trying to find overall data.

Nonetheless it’s an interesting line to take, and no doubt there is an element of truth in it. As far as I can boil down his arguments, excessive choice can be bad because of :

  1. Transaction costs The more choices you have to examine, the longer you have to spend checking through every one of them
  2. Extra choices give diminishing returns. Having two options is massively better than having one. Having 274,922 options instead of 274,921 is not much better – but you still have to look at that extra option before you can make an informed decision. The cost of evaluating choices increases linearly, but the benefit from each extra choice tapers off.
  3. Psychology. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. If you have many choices, then whatever you choose you will give up on most of the things you could have done – and this isn’t pleasant. As a teacher, he finds that many of his multi-talented students suffer when they leave college, and for the first time have to shut out some of the options in their lives. If you only have one choice, you won’t feel so much regret – your life might be bad, but you’ll blame it on the system, not on yourself making a stupid decision.

I’m disappointed he didn’t offer any solutions. Reducing choice is really not a viable option (notwithstanding the apocalyptic climate-change predictions I’ve been hearing a lot of lately) – what else can we do?

There’s an obvious technological angle in all the rating and comparision-shopping systems on the web – ebay, amazon, froogle and so on. Equally there are the lower-tech equivalents: Which and the like. Given a set of personal values and some choices, it’s not all that hard to automate most of the work of choosing between them.

I guess there are also some social and psychological lessons out there. I know I’d benefit from learning to accept that my choices will often be the wrong ones. Perhaps we’d also benefit from thinking that “if you don’t know what to choose, it’s OK to pick something at random”. We could have Dice Man lite being taught in finishing schools.

Another thing the talk didn’t address is the link between choice and homogeneity. I love the way that we can live in subcultures within subcultures, that you can meet people who are so very different. If you eliminate choice, you eliminate all that beauty.

But it’s all OK, because even Schwartz doesn’t want to eliminate choice. And if you’re talking about how to deal with it, then I am unashamedly enthusiastic.

According to Amazon, there’s no shortage of books by Schwartz to follow this up in more detail.