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We can try to avoid making choices by doing nothing, but even that is a decision.
– Gary Collins
THE
BULLETIN
Volume 73 | Issue 6
November 2005

Book Review: Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less

Carolyn E Farley

D’Innocenzio (2005) says: “College students have grown up customizing their cell phones and Web pages and are used to having furniture collections designed for them” (p. 3E). So why should college be any different?

In a land of almost unlimited choices, should college students have to compromise their individuality just because they are moving into a building where the shell of their room will look like the shell of 200 or 400 or 800 other rooms? Yet, the bigger question may be: Are all these options necessary at this point in their lives?

For Barry Schwartz (2004), the Dorwin Cartwright professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore College, the options associated with decorating a residence hall room is only one among many sets of choices college students face. In “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,” Schwartz (2004) uses both general consumer and some higher education-specific examples of why an increasingly diverse array of choices may not be serving us well. His assessments, based on anecdotal observations and research in the social sciences, provide a solid framework in which to consider the downside of an ever-expanding set of options. Given student affairs professionals’ focus on college student development, this provocative book poses challenges and solutions associated with the mounting pressure of so many choices, and it does so in terms that can be translated into the work we do with students.

Schwartz (2004) organizes “TheParadox of Choice” into four sections:

Part I discusses how the range of choices people face every day has increased in recent years. Part II discusses how we choose and shows how difficult and demanding it is to make wise choices C9 Part III is about how and why choice can make us suffer. C9 Finally, Part IV offers a series of recommendations for taking advantage of what is positive and avoiding what is negative in our modern freedom of choice. (pp. 4–5)

In Part I of this BusinessWeek Top 10 Book of the Year, Schwartz (2004) claims that:

When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. As the number of available choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture, the autonomy, control, and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize. (p. 2)

Schwartz (2004) uses a variety of examples to illustrate this phenomenon. From blue jeans to grocery items to electronics, consumers today are given so many choices that it is easy to be overwhelmed. In an example with which higher education professionals can relate, Schwartz (2004) finds that “today, the modern institution of higher learning offers a wide array of different ‘goods’ [in the form of classes and cocurricular opportunities] and allows, even encourages, students—the ‘customers’—to shop around until they find what they like” (p. 15). Students are making “choices about education that may affect them for the rest of their lives. And they are forced to make these choices at a point in their intellectual development when they may lack the resources to make them intelligently” (Schwartz, 2004, p. 17).

While it is not unusual for higher education professionals to bristle at the thought of likening students to customers, there are certain parallels that ring true in reviewing Schwartz’s examples. As a result of the numerous courses, timeslots, and cocurricular opportunities available to them, two students may never have a common class or experience despite fulfilling the same requirements for graduation. For some students, a common experience may not be a desirable outcome as that common experience would imply a lack of options from which one might choose.

This circumstance requires college union professionals to expand the scope of a common experience to connect with those students who favor having so many choices. For example, the University of North Carolina–Wilmington uses “involvement” as the umbrella for student organization participation, campus employment, service learning, internships, and leadership development with an expectation that all students experience some kind of involvement. While the options are broad-based, the intent is centralized in a way that reflects the values of the institution and that builds community through the common experience. Given Schwartz’s (2004) assessment of the lack of a common experience, most campuses will find that this approach is necessary for that common experience to exist in today’s world of choices.

In a Chronicle of Higher Education article, Farrell and Hoover (2005) discuss anthropologist Rebekah Nathan’s related observations, made while posing as an undergraduate to conduct research:

Students’ demand for choice complicated the elusive ideal of community. Although students claimed to like the notion of a close-knit campus, their own particular interests led them in too many different directions to make such a campus possible...

At the ‘over-optioned’ university, [Nathan] writes, the sheer number of extracurricular activities ensured that students were rarely in the same place at once, despite campus efforts to bring them together. (p. A36)

In this environment, is “community” a reality or an impression? If several students can point to a campus tradition, is it one even if they have not engaged in the activity themselves? Having so many options available for campus participation leaves students in a position where they are unable to experience every fond college tradition or activity so they must decide in which areas they will focus. While this might be unavoidable, it helps for student affairs professionals, and particularly advisors, to understand how individuals make decisions and the different kinds of decision-makers.

In terms of practical application, one of the most useful sections of Schwartz’s (2004) book is Part II: How We Choose, which includes the subsections: “Knowing Your Goals,” “Gathering Information,” “Quality and Quantity of Information,” “Anchoring,” and “Frames and Accounts.” Readers get a sense of the variety of ways in which decisions are made, and, in turn, the opportunities that exist to influence the outcome of the decision—marketing at its finest. Schwartz (2004) introduces some jargon to better define these elements. Examples include:

  • “Availability heuristic,” meaning that the more available a piece of information is to memory, the more frequently we must have encountered it in the past. (p. 58)
  • “Maximizers” are individuals who “need to be assured that every purchase or decision was the best that could be made.” (p. 77)
  • “Satisficers” are individuals who are able to “settle for something that is good enough and not worry about the possibility that there might be something better.” (p. 78)

These terms can be off-putting to readers because, without a thorough explanation as to their origins, they are not words that will be easily used in conversation with others. However, once mastered, they form a helpful framework within which to consider one’s own or another’s behavior.

Schwartz (2004) is quick to point out that:

The growth of options and opportunities has three, related, unfortunate effects.

  • It means that decisions require more effort.
  • It makes mistakes more likely.
  • It makes the psychological consequences of mistakes more severe. (p. 74)

Even with significant research that successfully weighs the pros and cons of a particular decision, there remains a strong chance that the final decision will be unsatisfying, no matter how many choices an individual has. This may be a result of discovering a genuinely better option having made a decision already or it could be that the time, effort, and energy spent making the decision was not a good use of often scarce resources. The temptation in trying to optimize every decision is that some decisions are simply not worth that level of investment.

The third part of the book further expands on this conclusion by describing “Why We Suffer” in a world with so many choices. Schwartz (2004) says: “As a culture, we are enamored of freedom, self-determination, and variety, and we are reluctant to give up any of our options. But clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction—even to clinical depression” (p. 3). Like in economics, “One of the ‘costs’ of any option involves passing up the opportunities that a different option would have afforded” (Schwartz, 2004, p. 120). This theory also applies to deciding among the alternatives available in a given set of circumstances. In economics, the opportunity cost is only weighed in comparison to the next best option, but in human nature, it is difficult not to imagine “what might have been.” As a result, individuals are distressed because they find their decisions less satisfying while imagining any number of opportunity costs. Schwartz (2004) points to the increasing number of Americans diagnosed with depression that has blossomed even as the number of options and thereby choices become available.

In “The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies,” Lane (2000) notes that “Choices proliferate beyond our pleasure in choosing and our capacity to handle the choices” (p. 181). The increasing volume of information available regarding the range of choices does not decrease the dissonance that someone experiences. Lane (2000) says: “For better decision making, the advantages of information are curvilinear: both too little and too much are disadvantageous” (p. 182). Lane seems to concur with Schwartz’s assessment that there are significant trade-offs in a society with too many choices.

The solution Schwartz (2004) suggests is that we need to determine when choices deserve energy and attention and when we need to simply make a decision and move on. Societal constraints such as rules, standards, and even contracts like a marital contract may suggest a loss of freedom due to option-limiting obligations associated with these norms. However, Schwartz (2004) asserts that the narrowing of choices can, in the end result in less decision-associated stress.

In Part IV, Schwartz (2004) addresses “What We Can Do,” with subsections including: “Choose When to Choose”; “Be a Chooser, Not a Picker”; “Satisfice More and Maximize Less”; and “Think about the Opportunity Costs of Opportunity Costs.” He explores ways in which we can make the world of options more manageable. For Schwartz (2004), considering a decision irreversible once made is one of the more liberating approaches to decision making. If we continue to reflect on, even regret decisions to the point that we want to “remake” them by reversing them, there is a chance that a particular issue never will be resolved. Some of Schwartz’s (2004) advice may seem rather simplistic in a “the glass is half full rather than half empty” way, but the essence is that not every decision deserves the time and attention that many people give it.

With the guidance of this final section, readers have a chance to better understand which decisions should get that type of attention and which should not. For example, instead of shopping at eight different stores to find that perfect outfit, limit yourself to two shops where you have had success in the past. Maybe the sales people are particularly helpful, which expedites your shopping process. Or, perhaps you simply know that the clothes will fit and are easy to care for. You can determine what criteria to use in advance, but Schwartz (2004) suggests using the “two options is my limit” rule; he says: “By settling for ‘good enough’ even when the ‘best’ could be around the corner, satisficers will usually feel better about the decisions they make” (p. 225). A familiar example of knowing when to settle for good enough is used here. The competition for long-distance phone service was rampant a few years ago (now replaced by voice-over-Internet or cellular service). If individuals spent time scrutinizing the details associated with this plan versus that plan or deliberating about comparisons between companies, it could take hours, even days to choose. The shades of gray that separate one service from another are so insignificant that trying to maximize that decision would exhaust both time and energy with little relative gain in the end. Limiting choices is a time- and stress-management strategy that reflects individuals’ priorities. Time can and should be spent on the decisions that will have the greatest long-term significance.

During the course of the book, Schwartz (2004) argues that:

  • We would be better off if we embraced certain voluntary constraints on our freedom of choice, instead of rebelling against them.
  • We would be better off seeking what was “good enough” instead of seeking the best.
  • We would be better off if we lowered our expectations about the results of decisions.
  • We would be better off if the decisions we made were nonreversible.
  • We would be better off if we paid less attention to what others around us were doing. (p. 5)

Throughout the book, cartoons from The New Yorker collection cleverly illustrate the points being made. Most chapters require some reflection on the content before proceeding to the next section, and the illustrations help make the point in simple ways that reinforce the message.

For college union practitioners, Schwartz’s challenge is to allow for individuality among college students as a byproduct of all these options and subsequent choices while still providing a common experience for community building. Again, Farrell and Hoover (2005) point to Nathan’s conclusions “that the university’s efforts to promote diversity failed, in part, because communal activities ran counter to students’ free exercise of their individualism” (p. A36). Can we limit the choices the students have in such a way as to provide for the common experience? That is a surmountable goal.

Schwartz (2004) draws on social science research to walk readers through “The Paradox of Choice.” He provides everyday examples of the challenges associated with having too many choices and the resulting dissonance from related decisions. As we watch new students arrive on campus with more “stuff” than we imagined in our own residence hall rooms a few years ago, we need to remember that with the growing number of options comes freedom as well as stress. It is important that as student affairs professionals we recognize that our role as advisors, supervisors, and mentors may need to involve conversations that help limit choices in a healthy and productive way.

References

D’Innocenzio, A. (2005, August 14). Dorm decoration finds retail niche. Wilmington Star-News, p. 3E.
Farrell, E. F., & Hoover, E. (2005, July 29). Getting schooled in student life: An anthropology professor goes under cover to experience the mysterious life of undergraduates. The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A36.
Lane, R. E. (2000). The loss of happiness in market democracies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York: Ecco.