on 11 July 2004
this is a fantastic book that manages to articulate a set of ideas and experiences that I have had for a long time. namely that whilst choice has been fetishised in western societies, and become an unquestionable good, in fact a lot of the time choice a) it makes us uncomfortable (and unable to choose!) and b) doesn't deliver what we expect. this book predominantly deals with a).
one of the main points in the book is that different types of people deal with choice differently. satisficers will choose something that meets their needs, whilst maximizers will try and find the "best" option from all the choices available (it's not a simple split, some people approach different choices in different ways but anyway....). I definitely fit into the latter category. however what this book explains is that as a result maximizers will often be unhappy. this is so on the money. the amount of time I spend agonizing over some choices, and then questioning them afterwards to ensure that I didn't miss something.
there are some really interesting examples in here that I've been boring people to death with. for example the one about people buying jam. they are far more likely to buy one jam when there is only a choice of half a dozen than when there is a choice of twenty or more. it seems we get paralysed by too much choice. similraly there is a great story about people's responses to a hypothetical choice between using different vaccines - one guaranteed to cure one third (but only one third) of those it's used on, and an experimental one that will cure everyone if it works but there's only a one in three chance it will work. how you phrase the proposition has a big impact on how people respond. finally there is genuinely surprising (to me anyway) evidence that people in more restrictive communities are happier.
that said I have found quite a few people hostile to the idea that choice can be a bad thing when I've discussed this book with them. it's currently politically correct to advocate freedom of choice and want to expand it. as such I find that some politico types (more commonly but not always right-wing) are extremely threatened by any criticism of choice.
but to me that demonstrates why this is such a useful book.
on 11 March 2007
I like an author who can keep a good, coherent argument going through an entire book, and to give Barry Schwartz credit I certainly think he does that here. It didn't hurt that I was ready to agree with him before I even started reading -- my own dislike of consumerism disposed me favourably towards his pro-simplicity argument straight away -- but, anyhow, I think it's fair to say that he makes his case thoroughly and backs it up with wide-ranging and relevant evidence.
I have a couple of caveats, some quite important. First, when I say the argument is made thoroughly, that doesn't mean that I think the book necessarily needs to be over 200 pages long. In fact, it really does begin to drag after about halfway through. The examples become overwhelmingly repetitive -- more and more of the same -- and the prose becomes laboured, as though the author knows in his heart he has said all he needs to say. His recommendations at the end of the book, for coping with excessive choice, have a desultory air about them, and I don't think Schwartz really has any suggestions that haven't been made more clearly and insightfully by others.
I can't help feeling that he could have made his points in about half the number of pages, maybe less. That would have been a good example to set, for someone so keen to extol the virtues of economy and simplification. But I guess that would have made his publisher's job of shifting the book somewhat less simple -- less than two hundred pages and people feel they're not getting their money's worth, right?
In spite of all that I nearly gave this book four stars, but I've knocked off another point for Schwartz's spectacularly ignorant dismissal of Voluntary Simplicity at the end of his introduction. Bizarrely, he uses an American magazine called 'Real Simple' as an example to try to show the limitations of this growing movement. He says that all the magazine does is encourage people to think more about how to achieve their 'wants', rather than trying to think about how to reduce these wants and live more economically. Schwartz is quite right -- that is precisely what that particular magazine exists to do (look at their website and you will see). But he has the wrong end of the stick entirely, because 'Real Simple' has absolutely nothing to do with the Voluntary Simplicity movement. It is a 'home and garden' type magazine that offers time-saving -- and rather expensive -- solutions for busy -- and rather wealthy -- middle-class American housewives. It's like a higher-class version of 'Family Circle'. I can't believe that Schwartz could have been so foolish as to mistake it for a magazine advocating alternative lifestyles. It's about as close to consumerist middle America as you could possibly get.
He then wonders aloud whether people could be attracted to a magazine that tried to focus instead on simplifying by reducing such 'wants'. ("Who would buy such a magazine?" is his curt dismissal.) Well, I don't know if there is a magazine like that but I do know there are hundreds of thousands of people in the US, Britain, and other Western countries, who are actively choosing to simplify their lives by reducing consumption, working less, and focussing more on quality of life than money. Call it 'simple living', call it 'downshifting' -- call it what you will, there is a large, well-established and intellectually respectable (read Duane Elgin's book 'Voluntary Simplicity') social movement out there trying to engage with precisely the same problems that Schwartz outlines in this book, and he appears blissfully ignorant of it.
I feel a little bit guilty because I've said mostly critical things in this review. Hopefully you'll notice that I've still given it three stars -- I do think quite well of this book, and I'm glad I read it. If nothing else, in spite of its flaws, the book got me thinking a little. And I'm always grateful for that.
I remember reading about ten or twelve years ago of Russian immigrants to the West who were overwhelmed by the choices in the average supermarket. Accustomed to a choice of cereal or no cereal, they became paralyzed when confronted with flakes, puffs, pops, sugared or not, oat, wheat, corn, rice, hot or cold, and on and on. Now, according to Barry Schwartz, we are all overwhelmed by too many choices.
No one is immune, he says. Even if someone doesn't care about clothes or restaurants, he might care very much about TV channels or books. And these are just the relatively unimportant kinds of choices. Which cookie or pair of jeans we choose doesn't really matter very much. Which health care plan or which university we choose matters quite a lot. How do different people deal with making decisions?
Schwartz analyzes from every angle how people make choices. He divides people into two groups, Maximizers and Satisficers, to describe how some people try to make the best possible choice out of an increasing number of options, and others just settle for the first choice that meets their standards. (I think he should have held out for a better choice of word than "satisficer.")
I was a bit disappointed that Schwartz dismissed the voluntary simplicity movement so quickly. They have covered this ground and found practical ways of dealing with an overabundance of choice. Instead of exploring their findings, Schwartz picked up a copy of Real Simple magazine, and found it was all about advertising. If he had picked up a copy of The Overspent American by Juliet Schor or Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin instead, he might have found some genuine discussion of simple living rather than Madison Avenue's exploitation of it.
I enjoyed the first part of The Paradox of Choice, about how we choose, but the second half, about regret and depression, seemed to drag. Fortunately, I was able to choose to skim the slow bits and move right to the more interesting conclusion, about how to become more satisfied (or "satisficed") through better decision-making.
on 6 May 2004
Barry Schwartz answers the question with analytical clarity and with supported research and makes a logical and compelling case concerning the unhappiness associated with to much choice.
We are being bred by the world of marketing through the power of persuasive and pervasive media. Consumers are confused with too much choice but no one has calculated the cost to our quality of life. There are those who can cope and those who struggle, but we are all affected in one way or another.
Why is it that now that we are empowered with the ability to purchase more than ever before and with so much choice is depression on the increase and reaching a growing number of our children?
The Paradox of Choice provides the reason. It is a comfortable read and at the end there are steps to take to achieve a better perspective on our role as consumer in this culture.
I think teachers, parents as well as politicians, psychologists, business & the marketing community would receive a benefit by reading this book.
on 24 May 2006
I had a guilty secret. I'd buy a gadget, think it was great for a while, stop using it and then feel guilty about getting the thing in the first place. Being a typical bloke, I rarely talked about this to anyone and thought it was just me being pathetic. Then I read this book and realised, yipee !, I'm just a shallow consumer and virtually everyone else feels the same - to a greater or lesser degree.
Schwartz exhaustively mines this tendency and matches a good overall structural discourse with really interesting snippets from psychological research. My only problem with the book is the ending, having devoted around 200 pages to analysis the last chapter about what to do about choice is quite perfunctory (don't compare too much, expect to be disappointed etc.).
Plus there's a real howler (for me anyway) right at the end when he states that you just have to accept that the 'best things in life' only go to those who do 'better'. But by 'best things' he means a bigger house or a faster car i.e. small incremental 'improvements' over what you already have. To be fair he does also state that you should be happy with 'adequate' but there was still that nasty allusion to the fact that you should 'know your place'. Better to simply laugh at the idiots out there who wreck their lives in the persuit of gadget happiness.
Mind you, have you seen that new iPod ?
on 11 June 2011
I'm one of those responsible for the paradox. One of those "on the other" side of the counter. With over ten years spent in marketing its hard for me to look at this book as a consumer only, although I believe a lot of consumers would benefit from the read. This is definitely not, nor was it intended to be, a book on marketing but it makes you ask serious questions about it, especially if you happen to be involved professionally. Should we, the marketers of all kinds, ever quit the chase and stop flooding consumers' minds with countless products, brands, promotions etc? Is not simplicity the best way to advance through the market? End there comes ethics. Do we do the right thing? Do we cross the fine line between delivering valuable alternatives to the market and creating havoc of information that is not possible to be ever digested by a normal human being?
The book is written from the point of view of a person who is very concerned and disturbed by what's going on with information flood that we as a consumers face. Still, there are serious implications for business, so it seems legitimate to view the book as an inspiring piece for marketing and advertising professionals as well. It will remind them, or should I say remind us, we do not work in vacuum, and what we do influences life of people and societies, sometimes in a very negative way. So while far away from simplistic, demagogic diagnosis blaming modern economy and especially marketing for all the evils of the world, it is calling for a serious reflection. That's my view. And it is surely biased as I guess the word "marketing" does not appear even once in the book. Never the less, please read it marketers and it will make you look at your job from a different angle.
on 11 October 2006
Barry Schwartz was one of my favourite speakers at a Positive Psychology conference I attended some years ago. His speech was one of the best and I bought the book as soon as it came out. I would recommend it highly to people who feel bombarded by the choices this world offers; the people who feel trapped by indecision, and the people who want to read a thought-provoking and excellent book about the choice aspect of every iota of 21st century living. Buy the book and read it.
on 22 June 2013
I'm definitely a maximizer; reading this book was very refreshing for me! I could relate to the experiences Barry explained, I thought my 'problems' were just specific to me, but actually it turns out there are a whole type of human in our modern times, who have the same experiences as me.. so nice to know I wasn't alone..!
It helped reading this because I'm more aware of why I find it hard to chose. Sometimes trivial tasks, like getting a new camera, takes me ages and ages (because I research all the choices available.. and there are too many)
Barry explains the problems maximizers are faced with and gives plausible explanations on why modern living conditions makes it more difficult for maximizers and also why our modern environment causes more people to become maximizers..
Interestingly, at the beginning of the book, there are a few tests you can do to gauge how much of a maximizers you are and also how happy you are. I ran these tests on myself and a group of friends, and I did find the results as the book predicted, the more of a maximizers you are, the more unsatisfied with life you are..
Look, I won't bore you with lodes of writing but.. in summary:
* Booh is worth a read.. its only 236 pages, but a little long winded.. so I had to push myself to finish it.. but you know what, Im really glad I read it.
on 21 February 2004
Faced with too many choices, Schwartz has stumbled in this erudite and well-reasoned attempts to illustrate the dilemmas of too many choices too often for too many people in a too affluent society.
"As the number of choices we face increases, freedom of choice eventually becomes a tyranny of choice," Schwartz intones one page from the end of his book. Maybe that's why America, the land of choice, has always limited itself to two major political parties rather than a profusion of ideologies and opinions.
If choice is good in the marketplace, surely it is good for politics. Schwartz says he "found 85 different varieties and brands of crackers." Didn't it occurred to him that if America has cracker democracy, it should also have 85 different varieties and brands of political parties? If it's good for the marketplace, why not for politics?
The key, which he passes over briefly, is found in his third chapter when he says cigarette manufacturers in the 1930s "discovered that smokers who taste-tested various cigarette brands without knowing which was which couldn't tell them apart." The result, he says, was "the practice of selling a product by associating it with a glamorous lifestyle."
It's the foundation of modern marketplace. People who are satisfied with their lives don't spend their time worrying about whether they have the most elegant, tasty, healthy or socially responsible cracker; instead, they buy and use the cracker that meets their needs. Is this possible? Well, years ago I worked with a former executive from Kraft foods who once explained that Kraft factories produced 90 percent of the macaroni and cheese sold in America. Some was sold under the Kraft name; much was sold as private brands. Yet advertising tells people there are differences. Gasoline? It's all the same, according to people who run refineries; however, look at the advertising for gasoline.
If you look at the hands producing vehicles, electronics, clothing and dozens of other consumer products, you realize much of the content comes from people who are paid pennies per hour to produce products according to ISO 9000 standards. The glamorous lifestyle choices that are so confusing comes from advertising.
Want an IBM notebook? Cisco router? Sun workstation? Hewlett-Packard printer? All are manufactured by Solectron, the largest contract manufacturer in the world. You can still buy a new GE and RCA television, though GE hasn't made a TV since 1987 and RCA doesn't exist as a company; both are brand names for Thomson, the French electronics company. In other words, you're buying the product of one manufacturer.
The key element is not the advertising glitter, nor the brand name of the product, it is whether a product meets your needs. I've driven a Jaguar, a truly magnificent car; but, my needs are best satisfied by a 1984 Volvo station wagon. In other words, my Volvo meets my needs -- my personal needs are not what advertisers say will make me happy or a car advertisers claim will raise the envy level of my neighbors.
Schwartz offers a valuable introduction to the paradoxes of choice as muddled by advertising, his observations are relevant and telling but his conclusions are hollow. He's as much a prisoner of the "glamorous lifestyle" image as anyone. It's a great book to read if you keep this in mind; think of him in terms of providing an ISO 9001:2000 product and decide whether it meets your needs.
Perhaps, though, I'm wrong in my assessment; maybe Schwartz is right. If you value intellectual integrity, read it and decide whether his ideas satisfy your experience. Bottom line? Read, then think for yourself and be satisfied with having added to your own knowledge and intelligence. Don't worry about what anyone else tells you to think.
on 30 May 2014
Barry Schwartz makes a great point. He argues that having more choices, indeed having more freedom, is not always all it's cracked up to be. That we lose something by giving ourselves such a wide scope of options. He cites several studies and uses personal anecdotes to illustrate his point.
That point is great. It could also be made thoroughly and completely in about 20 pages. Unfortunately 20 pages does not a book make. So Schwartz makes it in over 200. He repeats himself terribly, to the extent it becomes difficult to notice when he begins saying something new. Repetition of previous points can of course serve a purpose, but too frequently Schwartz repeats the entire line of reasoning.
As an example, at the beginning of the book he relates a story of going to buy a pair of jeans. He is confounded by the range and variety of styles he is forced to choose from. He just wants a normal pair of jeans. Great. Point made. Schwartz, however, goes on to repeat this anecdote at least four times in the book. He doesn't just say, "remember the situation with the jeans in chapter one?", he relates the FULL story again and again. It's nothing short of infuriating.
I also felt some of the studies he cited were highly inconclusive and that he leapt to some pretty wild conclusions on the back of some rather unsurprising data.
Anyway, it's not the worst book in the world, and it does make you think. And, to be honest, I don't even blame Schwartz for the repetition - it would almost undoubtedly have been the demands of the publishers that created the useless padding.