The actual status quo, according to which freedom and happiness goes hand in hand to provide a life well lived has become almost axiomatic. Giving the possibility to the people to make their own choices about as many things as possible (and from as many items as possible) seems to be one of the foundations of modern democracy and economic sciences.
But is it possible that this categorical idea has one or more insidious drawbacks? Is it possible that, from certain point, the freedom choice becomes a burden, a source of anxiety and a seed for unhappiness? Barry Schwartz, Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College, developed, in his 2004 book “The Paradox of Choices – Why More is Less”, an intriguing but very actual side of our everyday life: how making choices can impact upon the quality of our mental balance.
My first clear memories dates back from I was around five years old. But one of the most vivid scenes I recall takes place in an early 90’s toy-store, when, in a moment of generosity, my grandmother let me wonder through the shelves to choose something for my birthday.
It was my first encounter with freedom.
In that cloggy light of a midsummer evening, all the artifacts standing soulless on shelves began to glow in a particular light, looking more like taxidermy trophies rather than mere toys for small children. I was mesmerized first by their random choreography, only to be mesmerized again when I realized I have to chose one of them to bring it home with me. I felt numerous thrilling chills on my backbone, a primary affluence of pre-orgasmic quiver from head to toes.
My grandmother was chatting with her shop-owner while I could only hope that they didn’t meet each other in a long-long time. But relative perception of time is there, even when you know nothing about yet – so, my time to chose a toy passed very quickly. I began to feel paralyzed when I had to face the moment of true.
“I will take nothing”, I said to myself.
“No, you idiot, your grandma will be angry and she’ll never take you gain to toy-store”, myself told me.
This type of internal ping-pong continued over and over, so I couldn’t really think about what toy I want to keep, but what is the better strategy: to choose or not to choose. So many goodies and I have to pick one? I couldn’t sense the joy of a new toy anymore, but only the sorrow to give up to the others.
Prof. Barry Schwartz starts with what he calls “the official syllogism”:
The more freedom people have, the happier they are.
Therefore, we should take every opportunity to enhance freedom.
We cannot have too much freedom.
A valid argument, but is it a sound argument? Since conclusion is obviously logically correct, to unmount it, or to label it as more inductive than deductive, prof. Schwartz propose a closer look to one of the widespread accepted definition of freedom: as much available choices and as little constraints as possible. Below are the initial premises that Prof. Schwartz enlists:
i. From non-decision to decision
Scientific advancement implemented in all industrial and services fields led to a wide series of new possibilities: when a few decades ago we didn’t have to think about what brand of smartphone we should buy (simply because it didn’t exist), now we have to invest a cognitive and emotional effort not only into choosing a certain brand, but also all its more complex features. We simply live in a world when we are obliged to think more, quantitatively, than our parents, because more things surround us.
ii. The cost of decision
As every mental effort, making a decision has a certain cost. Sometimes smaller, sometimes greater, but nevertheless a cost which it has to be considered in every dialogue about the topic of decision-making.
iii. The responsibility of Decision
A very important aspect of every choice one makes is the importance, the consequences that the decision implies. Some may be trivial, – as a matter of fact most of them are – but some are crucial. Prof. Schwartz exemplifies the tendency to transfer responsibility from experts to those who should be the beneficiaries of expertise. The case of patients (the ethics of Patient Autonomy), who are required to decide for themselves from a list of potential treatment enlisted by the physicians, argues that people have to decide when they don’t possess the knowledge of doing so and they are not in the best psychological and physical shape.
Without denying or minimizing the tremendous amount of satisfaction in human lives brought the liberation of choice and the diversity created by technological developments, Prof. Schwartz points out that we people should become aware of the negative aspects of swimming in a too deep pool of opportunities, aspects that subtract from the initial satisfaction gained by its action.
According to Oxford English Dictionary, the first mention of this collocation is found in The Times magazine during 1970’s, but its idea may be found in literature as early as 18th century. When one is faced with multiple possibilities to chose from, the temptation to achieve perfection tends to prolong (sometimes indefinitely) the moment of decision, generation high levels of procrastination and delaying any outcome. Prof. Schwartz emphasize this behaviour even when it’s obvious than any decision is better than none, like choosing a retirement plan4.
An exhausting cognitive activity may lead also to another negative aspect: overusing heuristics in thinking that leads to a series of fallacies. People are tended to make their decisions according rather to most obvious facts, not to most subjectively-important5. Prof. Schwartz cites the exhaustive work of Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, who’s revolutionary ideas developed together with Amos Tversky brought decision making theory into a new perspective6.
In cases of multiple choices associated with autonomy, the decision-maker is more likely to regret a certain decision he made upon the reason of missed opportunities connected with the choices he disregarded. Connecting all the facts above, Prof. Schwartz argues that the marginal utility of the number choices is not a linear linear function. More choices, hence more freedom, does not automatically lead to satisfaction. Additionally, after a certain value (which differs in various domain and for different mental structures), the negative emotions associated with decision-making, subtracted from the total amount of gained satisfaction, may lead to a subzero sum of positive feeling (becoming negative), as shown in the diagram on the left (or above, if you rad this from your smatphone).
From a practical point of view, Prof. Schwartz identifies two types of people with regards to the philosophy of decision-making:
i. the Maximizers, always seeking the perfect choice. They will progressively have better results than the satisfiers, but with an increasingly high emotional price. In professors’ own words: “they perform better but feel worse”.
ii. the Satisfiers, which are able to set a “good enough goal”, and to invest the accordingly amount of cognitive and emotional resources in it.
The main criticism of the choice overload revolves around insufficient experimental data to support his theory.
Alexander Chernev points out, in a paper published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology7:
“Despite the voluminous evidence in support of the paradoxical finding that providing individuals with more options can be detrimental to choice, the question of whether and when large assortments impede choice remains open. Even though extant research has identified a variety of antecedents and consequences of choice overload, the findings of the individual studies fail to come together into a cohesive understanding of when large assortments can benefit choice and when they can be detrimental to choice.”
Indeed, the data acquired in laboratory may be insufficient, but we can observe that criticism in based on the same lack of data. Psychologists and economists should joint efforts to create relevant studies to put Prof. Schwartz theories into test.
A Satisfier’s philosophy doesn’t mean to indulge in mediocrity, but rather to have a realistic sense of the strengths and weaknesses one has and to realize that never before in human history our species was confronted with such huge amount of data and information, which generates more and more choices everyday.
Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien/Dit que le mieux est l'ennemi du bien, ^Susan Ratcliffe (2011), Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Oxford University Press, p. 389, ISBN 978-0199567072
Schwartz B., 2004, “The Paradox of Choice”, Harper Collins e-book edition, pp. 27-29
Tversky A, Kahneman D, “Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability”, Cognitive Psychology, 5/1973, pp. 207-232.
Kahneman D, “Gândire rapidă, gândire lenta”, ed. Publica, 2015 - edition in Romanian language
vol. 25, Issue 2, April 2015, pp 333-358