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The Paradox of Choice
Cover of The Paradox of Choice
The Paradox of Choice
Why More Is Less

Whether we're buying a pair of jeans, ordering a cup of coffee, selecting a long-distance carrier, applying to college, choosing a doctor, or setting up a 401(k), everyday decisions—both big and small—have become increasingly complex due to the overwhelming abundance of choice with which we are presented.

As Americans, we assume that more choice means better options and greater satisfaction. But beware of excessive choice: choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures. In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis, anxiety, and perpetual stress. And, in a culture that tells us that there is no excuse for falling short of perfection when your options are limitless, too much choice can lead to clinical depression.

In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz explains at what point choice—the hallmark of individual freedom and self-determination that we so cherish—becomes detrimental to our psychological and emotional well-being. In accessible, engaging, and anecdotal prose, Schwartz shows how the dramatic explosion in choice—from the mundane to the profound challenges of balancing career, family, and individual needs—has paradoxically become a problem instead of a solution. Schwartz also shows how our obsession with choice encourages us to seek that which makes us feel worse.

By synthesizing current research in the social sciences, Schwartz makes the counter intuitive case that eliminating choices can greatly reduce the stress, anxiety, and busyness of our lives. He offers eleven practical steps on how to limit choices to a manageable number, have the discipline to focus on those that are important and ignore the rest, and ultimately derive greater satisfaction from the choices you have to make.

Whether we're buying a pair of jeans, ordering a cup of coffee, selecting a long-distance carrier, applying to college, choosing a doctor, or setting up a 401(k), everyday decisions—both big and small—have become increasingly complex due to the overwhelming abundance of choice with which we are presented.

As Americans, we assume that more choice means better options and greater satisfaction. But beware of excessive choice: choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures. In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis, anxiety, and perpetual stress. And, in a culture that tells us that there is no excuse for falling short of perfection when your options are limitless, too much choice can lead to clinical depression.

In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz explains at what point choice—the hallmark of individual freedom and self-determination that we so cherish—becomes detrimental to our psychological and emotional well-being. In accessible, engaging, and anecdotal prose, Schwartz shows how the dramatic explosion in choice—from the mundane to the profound challenges of balancing career, family, and individual needs—has paradoxically become a problem instead of a solution. Schwartz also shows how our obsession with choice encourages us to seek that which makes us feel worse.

By synthesizing current research in the social sciences, Schwartz makes the counter intuitive case that eliminating choices can greatly reduce the stress, anxiety, and busyness of our lives. He offers eleven practical steps on how to limit choices to a manageable number, have the discipline to focus on those that are important and ignore the rest, and ultimately derive greater satisfaction from the choices you have to make.

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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One

    Let's Go Shopping

    A Day at the Supermarket

    Scanning the shelves of my local supermarket recently, Ifound 85 different varieties and brands of crackers. As I read thepackages, I discovered that some brands had sodium, others didn't.Some were fat-free, others weren't. They came in big boxes andsmall ones. They came in normal size and bite size. There weremundane saltines and exotic and expensive imports.

    My neighborhood supermarket is not a particularly large store,and yet next to the crackers were 285 varieties of cookies. Amongchocolate chip cookies, there were 21 options. Among Goldfish (Idon't know whether to count them as cookies or crackers), therewere 20 different varieties to choose from.

    Across the aisle were juices -- 13 "sports drinks," 65 "box drinks"for kids, 85 other flavors and brands of juices, and 75 iced teas andadult drinks. I could get these tea drinks sweetened (sugar or artificialsweetener), lemoned, and flavored.

    Next, in the snack aisle, there were 95 options in all -- chips(taco and potato, ridged and flat, flavored and unflavored, salted andunsalted, high fat, low fat, no fat), pretzels, and the like, including adozen varieties of Pringles. Nearby was seltzer, no doubt to wash down the snacks. Bottled water was displayed in at least 15 flavors.

    In the pharmaceutical aisles, I found 61 varieties of suntan oiland sunblock, and 80 different pain relievers -- aspirin, acetaminophen,ibuprofen; 350 milligrams or 500 milligrams; caplets, capsules,and tablets; coated or uncoated. There were 40 options fortoothpaste, 150 lipsticks, 75 eyeliners, and 90 colors of nail polishfrom one brand alone. There were 116 kinds of skin cream, and360 types of shampoo, conditioner, gel, and mousse. Next to themwere 90 different cold remedies and decongestants. Finally, therewas dental floss: waxed and unwaxed, flavored and unflavored,offered in a variety of thicknesses.

    Returning to the food shelves, I could choose from among 230soup offerings, including 29 different chicken soups. There were 16varieties of instant mashed potatoes, 75 different instant gravies,120 different pasta sauces. Among the 175 different salad dressingswere 16 "Italian" dressings, and if none of them suited me, I couldchoose from 15 extra-virgin olive oils and 42 vinegars and make myown. There were 275 varieties of cereal, including 24 oatmealoptions and 7 "Cheerios" options. Across the aisle were 64 differentkinds of barbecue sauce and 175 types of tea bags.

    Heading down the homestretch, I encountered 22 types offrozen waffles. And just before the checkout (paper or plastic; cashor credit or debit), there was a salad bar that offered 55 differentitems.

    This brief tour of one modest store barely suggests the bountythat lies before today's middle-class consumer. I left out the freshfruits and vegetables (organic, semi-organic, and regular old fertilizedand pesticized), the fresh meats, fish, and poultry (free-rangeorganic chicken or penned-up chicken, skin on or off, whole or inpieces, seasoned or unseasoned, stuffed or empty), the frozen foods,the paper goods, the cleaning products, and on and on and on.

    A typical supermarket carries more than 30,000 items. That's alot to choose from. And more than 20,000 new products hit theshelves every year, almost all of them doomed to failure.

    Comparison shopping to get the best price adds still anotherdimension to the array of choices, so that if you were a truly carefulshopper, you could spend the better part of a day just to select a boxof crackers, as you worried about price, flavor, freshness, fat,sodium, and calories. But who has the time to do this? Perhapsthat's the reason consumers tend to return to the products theyusually buy, not even noticing 75% of the items competing for...

About the Author-
  • Barry Schwartz is the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College. He is the author of several books, including Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing, with Kenneth Sharpe, and Why We Work. His articles have appeared in many of the leading journals in his field, including American Psychologist.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    January 1, 2004
    Like Thoreau and the band Devo, psychology professor Schwartz provides ample evidence that we are faced with far too many choices on a daily basis, providing an illusion of a multitude of options when few honestly different ones actually exist. The conclusions Schwartz draws will be familiar to anyone who has flipped through 900 eerily similar channels of cable television only to find that nothing good is on. Whether choosing a health-care plan, choosing a college class or even buying a pair of jeans, Schwartz, drawing extensively on his own work in the social sciences, shows that a bewildering array of choices floods our exhausted brains, ultimately restricting instead of freeing us. We normally assume in America that more options ("easy fit" or"relaxed fit"?) will make us happier, but Schwartz shows the opposite is true, arguing that having all these choices actually goes so far as to erode our psychological well-being. Part research summary, part introductory social sciences tutorial, part self-help guide, this book offers concrete steps on how to reduce stress in decision making. Some will find Schwartz's conclusions too obvious, and others may disagree with his points or find them too repetitive, but to the average lay reader, Schwartz's accessible style and helpful tone is likely to aid the quietly desperate.

  • Christian Science Monitor

    "Brilliant.... The case Schwartz makes... is compelling, the implications disturbing.... An insightful book."

  • Philadelphia Inquirer

    "An insightful study that winningly argues its subtitle."

  • Austin American-Statesman

    "Schwartz lays out a convincing argument.... [He] is a crisp, engaging writer with an excellent sense of pace."

  • St. Petersburg Times

    "Schwartz offers helpful suggestions of how we can manage our world of overwhelming choices."

  • Washington Post

    "Wonderfully readable."

  • BusinessWeek

    "With its clever analysis, buttressed by sage New Yorker cartoons, The Paradox of Choice is persuasive."

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Why More Is Less
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