One day, while I was pursing through YouTube for interesting content, I came across an old TED talk video by Psychologist Barry Schwartz. The video focused on Dr. Schwartz’s claim to fame in his discourse on “ The Paradox of Choice”. The video provides a brief overview of Schwartz’s 2004 book The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz postulates in the video that in some regards an overabundance of choices can be more restricting and detrimental than it is liberating. As Schwartz asserts in the video, I was the typical American do perceive having more choices as being advantageous versus being detrimental. I see, personally, choice as being a correlating factor with greater degrees of freedom. Again, verifying his point of the linked of the perception of choice and free being dogmatic in Western countries, I have never personally questioned this notion. Schwartz really did make some compelling points in regards to how having a plethora of choices really can be more of a burden than an asset. He particularly piqued my interest in regards to his points on how choice can 1.) Stymied the decision-making process, 2.) It can create escalated expectations which can lead to dissatisfaction and 3.) The potential for the psychological distress caused by having a multitude of choices. Please keep in mind, I have not read the Schwartz book and my commentary is strictly based on the TED talk video. While I find validity in the arguments posed in this video to be interesting, I do have several critiques. I do feel as if Schwartz’s arguments do not take into account the variables of human differences, individual responsibility in the decision-making process, and the potential for a third variable problem in regards to distress engendered by having a multitude of choices.
THE VARIABLE OF HUMAN DIFFERENCES:
The potential decision-making stalemate that can be caused by having a plethora of options may carry the potential to be cumbersome to some or even most people. However, to play Devil’s advocate here is it possible that there are individuals whom this is not applicable to? It could be possible that there are individuals who are immune to the stresses of having many options. The objectivity of having more choices impeding the decision-making process cannot be discounted. Schwartz does speak in very general terms and never does operational define or delineate what constitutes an overabundance of choices. For some people, having more than one choice could be potentially daunting. While other people could have hundreds or if not thousands of choices at their disposal and not even struggle to make a prompt decision. Also, the amount of distress caused by having a multitude of choices, even if it is distressing, could also have a wide range of variance as well. Obviously, if an individual does suffer a significant amount of stress in attempts to decide due to the amount choices that is a matter of concern. The question is how do we test the veracity of the claim that the amount of choices in our society is restrictive when we need to account for the intensity, frequency, and prevalence of perceived difficulty in the decision-making process. Potentially, I am a statistical and perceived outlier, I tend to feel more pigeonholed when I am limited to only a couple of options as a consumer. I am aware that Schwartz did mention studies where individuals did indicate that the more choices provided, the prevalence of indecisiveness did increase. However, he never did get into the hard data. What was the statistical significance of this finding? How can we not attribute these results yielded to sampling error?
I feel that Schwartz was a little too broad with is an explanation of the choice paradox and did not account for the individual perception of the number of choices.
It also should be noted that terms of freedom and their relationship to the number of choices are highly subjective. Some people may feel that having many choices to be oppressive and others may perceive having a few options to be too oppressive. Also, the term of Freedom can also be subjective in its own right. Often times due to an incongruence in opinion one person’s right or freedom could potentially infringe the rights or freedom of others. Typically we are merely grappling between competing opinions, philosophies, ideologies, and values. It might be hasty and erroneous to assume a multitude of choices are broadly restrictive to all individuals living in Western society. Just as a side note Schwartz’s notion of choice increasing expectations is also highly subjective and have a great deal of variance among individuals. Some people would have expectations that are unquenchable or highly unrealistic regardless of have one choice or having a million choices.
Schwartz also points to the fact that in the Western world that many individuals tend to have a lot of remorse about the decisions they make. The logic is that when faced with a myriad of choices and we make the wrong decision we tend to blame ourselves and experience psychological distress. Due to the high prevalence of situational depression and suicide in the United States, I do see some credence to this point. However, at what point do we hold people accountable for the choices and actions? This inquiry is a political, philosophical, and economic question that should be applied regardless of how many choices an individual has at their disposal. The individual does have the ability in most circumstance to do research or gather information to make an informed choice or decision. Merely stating that having a myriad of choices and making the wrong one causes people distress only addresses this issue superficially.
In regards to purchasing decisions, career choices, health care options, etc. the individual has more efficacy than Schwartz’s gives us credit for. The individual can take it upon themselves to educate themselves or be a victim of ignorance and circumstance. To wallow in regret blame your lack of knowledge coupled with the myriad of choices you had at the time you made your decision is merely directing responsibility. Ethically it is lazy to blame society for the distress caused in the decision making process on choice alone. Especially considering how easy it is to obtain information at the present time. While some provide the counterpoint that the validity of the information procured is also a consideration. This a valid point, however, it is again up to the individual to properly judge the veracity of their sources. What truly troubles me about the position of blame the volume of choices for people’s distress from making poor choices is that this another common theme in Western Society. That theme is diffusion of responsibility, we as a society really need to own our mistakes and learn from them.
THIRD VARIABLE PROBLEM:
My third and final counterpoint against the “ Choice Paradox” is the potential byproduct of the third variable problem. Is it really the number of choices we have that hinders us in making choices or is another variable that is glazing over. Again, the lack of empirical hard data on Schwartz’s end really makes it difficult to dispel the potential for another variable other than the number of choices we have. Also, in regards to the study he mentions in the video, he does not describe the conditions under which the study was conducted. In my opinion, it sounded like an observational study that was examining correlational factors. Whereas, an experimental study the researchers would be able to control for confounding variables and skim the margin for sampling error down to a minuscule level and thus limit the possibility that we are being obstructed in our decision-making process by another factor. Obviously, the veracity of Schwartz’s claims may not necessarily survive the rigor of scientific analysis. How do we know that decision making is not impeded by other factors such as personality, cultural norms, pre-existing mental health issues, ETC? There is no way to know for sure.
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