Less Is More
Paradox of Choice
My sister and her husband bought an unfinished house a little while ago. Since then, we haven’t been able to talk about anything else. The sole topic of conversation for the past two months has been bathroom tiles: ceramic, granite, marble, metal, stone, wood, glass, and every type of laminate known to man. Rarely have I seen my sister in such anguish. “There are just too many to choose from,” she exclaims, throwing her hands in the air and returning to the tile catalog, her constant companion.
I’ve counted and researched: My local grocery store stocks 48 varieties of yogurt, 134 types of red wine, 64 different cleaning products, and a grand total of 30,000 items. Amazon, the Internet bookseller, has two million titles available. Nowadays, people are bombarded with options, such as hundreds of mental disorders, thousands of different careers, even more holiday destinations, and an infinite variety of lifestyles. There has never been more choice.
When I was young, we had three types of yogurt, three television channels, two churches, two kinds of cheese (mild or strong), one type of fish (trout), and one telephone provided by the Swiss Post. The black box with the dial served no other purpose than making calls, and that did us just fine. In contrast, anyone who enters a cell-phone store today runs the risk of being flattened by an avalanche of brands, models, and contract options.
And yet selection is the yardstick of progress. It is what sets us apart from planned economies and the Stone Age. Yes, abundance makes you giddy, but there is a limit. When it is exceeded, a surfeit of choices destroys quality of life. The technical term for this is the paradox of choice.
In his book of the same title, psychologist Barry Schwartz describes why this is so. First, a large selection leads to inner paralysis. To test this, a supermarket set up a stand where customers could sample twenty-four varieties of jelly. They could try as many as they liked and then buy them at a discount. The next day, the owners carried out the same experiment with only six flavors. The result? They sold ten times more jelly on day two. Why? With such a wide range, customers could not come to a decision, so they bought nothing. The experiment was repeated several times with different products. The results were always the same.
Second, a broader selection leads to poorer decisions. If you ask young people what is important in a life partner, they reel off all the usual qualities: intelligence, good manners, warmth, the ability to listen, a sense of humor, and physical attractiveness. But do they actually take these criteria into account when choosing someone? In the past, a young man from a village of average size could choose among maybe twenty girls of similar age with whom he went to school. He knew their families and vice versa, leading to a decision based on several well-known attributes. Nowadays, in the era of online dating, millions of potential partners are at our disposal. It has been proven that the stress caused by this mind-boggling variety is so large that the male brain reduces the decision to one single criterion: physical attractiveness. The consequences of this selection process you already know—perhaps even from personal experience.
Finally, large selection leads to discontent. How can you be sure you are making the right choice when two hundred options surround and confound you? The answer is: You cannot. The more choice you have, the more unsure and therefore dissatisfied you are afterward.
So what can you do? Think carefully about what you want before you inspect existing offers. Write down these criteria and stick to them rigidly. Also, realize that you can never make a perfect decision. Aiming for this is, given the flood of possibilities, a form of irrational perfectionism. Instead, learn to love a “good” choice. Yes, even in terms of life partners. Only the best will do? In this age of unlimited variety, rather the opposite is true: “Good enough” is the new optimum (except, of course, for you and me).