Paradox of Choice Book Review
Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.
- Barry Schwartz
The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less was written in 2004. One year before Freakonomics, two years before Stumbling on Happiness, four years before Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, and six years before Thinking Fast and Slow. I mention these titles because this is a book that focuses on Behavioral Economics. It’s got the same pop-psychology vibes as they do. Most importantly, I read them all before I got to this one and that fact heavily shades this review.
The Paradox of Choice landed on my radar because it is attributed and quoted endlessly. Tim Ferriss mentions it often on his podcast, especially in the early days. Barry Schwartz also did a Ted Talk that I watched. Schwartz mentions a good amount of Daniel Kahneman and goes over some common biases. Anyone familiar with the above mentioned books and/or behavioral economics will recognize the data and experiments. The largest chapter in the book is on opportunity costs and I took practically zero notes on that section. There is a football field worth of examples in this book which can make it a more colorful read. Unfortunately since I already knew most of the principles and understood where Schwartz was going from the opening, these were largely repetitive and sometimes exceedingly lengthy. Shout out to the grocery store example from Chapter One.
This book was probably ground breaking in 2004 and 2005. I get the hype and the citations that this book receives. It has some helpful advise on how to deal with the vast amount of choices we have living in the current era of abundance. However, it’s not going to make my re-readables. I would recommend reading Thinking Fast and Slow and then Stumbling on Happiness. After that, listen to this one on double speed or just check out my notes below:
We use the peak and the end of an experience to remember and judge it. This rule guides our summary of the experience. I went on a trip to Hawaii in 2020 and we were snorkeling at a random beach on the Big Island. We swam a little farther out and a pod of wild dolphins surged up to swim with us. It was incredible. After we swam in and got throughly dominated by sea urchins trying to exit the water, I sat back and thought that was Peak experience. I knew those moments were going to be what we remembered about this trip. We also booked a boat trip with more snorkeling on the last day. Endings are important.
A mediocre vacation with a great peak and ending will be remembered as better than one that was consistently good but never great. “Colonoscopy plus”1 was rated as less unpleasant and affected followups.
More choices mean a decision requires more effort and makes mistakes more common.
Don’t be a maximizer (trying to find the best) When you find an item that is good enough, stop. Being a maximizer causes unhappiness.
More choices + maximizing = unhappiness
We have trouble letting go of sunk costs even though it would make us happier. An example in the book is paying $50 for tickets to a game but on the day of the game, it’s a snowstorm. You would probably be happier watching the game on your couch instead of battling traffic and closed roads, but since you already paid for the tickets you think you should go.
We did not evolve to handle the monumental number of choices we face today. Regretting our decisions can cause unhappiness. Coulda, shoulda, woulda - counter factual thinking. People rarely do downward counterfactual thinking - gratitude. Two factors affecting regret: personal responsibility for result and how easily a person can imagine a counter factual alternative. Abundant Choices make these worse. When you have only a few options you do the best you can. The more options and opportunity costs, the more regret.
Bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists. Near misses = a lot of regret vs no medal at all
Whatever we enjoy, we get used to. We keep having to level up experiences. Also know as the Hedonic Treadmill.
Steps to take to eliminate sources of distress from choices:
- Choose when to choose: The negative features of choice escalate as the number of choices increase.
- Decide what is important to your life and focus your time and energy on those choices. Letting other opportunities pass by.
By restricting our options we’ll choose less and feel better. For example, making a rule to consider only 2 locations for a vacation.
Practice gratitude: list 5 things you’re grateful for everyday. 5 minute journaling is useful for getting into this habit.
Expect adaptation: we will get used to our new car. Remember that our experiences will change overtime.