November 20, 2011


"The Paradox of Choice": We have never been this free--and this conflicted. Psychologist Barry Schwartz talks with Lars Mensel about the downside of choice, and the silver lining to the economic downturn. (Lars Mensel, 11/14/11, European)

The European: How did you get into researching choice and decision making?

Schwartz: For many years, I have been interested in the hold that the ideology of free market, economics has on people throughout the developed Western world. Why is it that everyone thinks that it's a miracle of human intervention? I concluded that one of its principle attractions is that it seems to cater to the desire for freedom. That's the most important thing about it: nobody tells you what to do, nobody tells you what to buy. There's no other way to arrange things where that kind of freedom is nearly as substantial. The question then is: are people actually liberated by all this freedom? A study came out more than ten years ago, that actually showed that when you give people too much choice, instead of being liberated, they get paralyzed. That study has generated many many follow-up studies, that indicate that this is really quite a pervasive phenomenon, and it seemed to me that this undermined the principle justification for organizing everything around competitive markets. Even if your aspiration is to enhance human freedom, this doesn't seem to be the way to do that.

The European: Yet modern times and Western prosperity has enabled us to do just about anything we want. What is the downside?

Schwartz: It seems fabulous in prospect and I can easily see why people embrace this with such enthusiasm. Not just choice when it comes to the stuff you buy, but choice when it comes to how you live. There's no canonical form of intimate relations--you get to decide, and you get to change your mind. You're not shackled the way your parents or your grandparents were, what could be better? It just turns out that when you give people this kind of unconstrained opportunity to reinvent themselves, they don't know what to do. Or if they do it, they look over their shoulders, convinced that they've made the wrong decisions, made the wrong career move, the wrong romantic choices and so on. So you are plagued with doubt, you are always dissatisfied with whatever you've chosen because just around the corner there's a better option. And I think we see this in the explosion of people seeking psychotherapy. In this land of milk and honey of unimagined freedom and affluence, everybody seems to be miserable.

The European: Many will confirm that even the most mundane decisions can be a burden. Is it the expectation to make something of our lives that weighs down on us?

Schwartz: Not just something: that we make something spectacular out of our lives. When choice was limited, I think people's aspirations and expectations were limited. And so you could live a decent life and feel good about it. But living a decent life just isn't good enough anymore. Why would you settle for decent when anything is possible?

This becomes important as we move towards more Third Way reforms--like personal SS accounts, HSAs, etc.--where we'll want to offer a discrete set of choices based primarily on the age-appropriate risk for the ciotizen.

Posted by at November 20, 2011 8:56 AM

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