Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Tyranny of Choice

Christmas and post-Christmas sales: stacked head-high with the latest, the loudest, the most expensive.  Exciting jaunt, or recipe for torpor?

According to Barry Schwartz, in 'The Tyranny of Choice', too much choice can be depressing - particularly for those who really seem to take choices seriously: shopaholics, for example.  Why?

First, making one choice rules others out.  The more choices, the more things we sacrifice.  For keen choosers - who Schwatz calls 'maximisers' - this loss is felt sharply.

Second, because choices often don't live up to expectations.  The more choices, the greater expectation of reward.  But often the bubble's popped as soon as we get the product home.  So we're doubly disappointed: we missed out on so many other products, and the one we chose sucked.  Again, this is heightened in maximisers because they feel more responsible: they feel like they've failed as homo economicuses.

Third, we adapt.  Even if we do choose well, the buzz can fade. This compounds the first and second problems: we expect a bigger high that we get, and this is another failure to shop well.

This can lead to nasty feedback cycles: shopping for a buzz, which fails, which leads to flatness, which can only be alleviated by shopping, and so on.  It's a recipe for depression, where life is reduced to a series of increasingly desperate attempts to medicate with purchases.

What to do?  Here are Schwartz' unsurprisingly Stoic remedies:
Choose when to choose.
We can decide to restrict our options when the decision is not crucial. For example, make a rule to visit no more than two stores when shopping for clothing.
Learn to accept “good enough.”
Settle for a choice that meets your core requirements rather than searching for the elusive “best.” Then stop thinking about it.
Don’t worry about what you’re missing.
Consciously limit how much you ponder the seemingly attractive features of options you reject. Teach yourself to focus on the positive parts of the selection you make.
Control expectations.
“Don’t expect too much, and you won’t be disappointed” is a cliché. But that advice is sensible if you want to be more satisfied with life.

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