“The Paradox of Choice”: Barry Schwartz’s TED Talk and Book

Jeremy DeanPsyBlog, lists a talk on “The Paradox of Choice” by Professor Barry Schwartz as being in the top 10 of short psychology presentations.

But let’s start with Schwartz’s 2003 book on the same topic. The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less showed how “our obsession with choice…contributes to anxiety, dissatisfaction and regret.” More from the publisher’s book description:

We assume that more choice means better options and greater satisfaction. But beware of excessive choice: choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures. In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis, anxiety, and perpetual stress. And, in a culture that tells us that there is no excuse for falling short of perfection when your options are limitless, too much choice can lead to clinical depression.

Publishers Weekly: “The conclusions Schwartz draws will be familiar to anyone who has flipped through 900 eerily similar channels of cable television only to find that nothing good is on…We normally assume in America that more options (‘easy fit’ or ‘relaxed fit’?) will make us happier, but Schwartz shows the opposite is true, arguing that having all these choices actually goes so far as to erode our psychological well-being. Part research summary, part introductory social sciences tutorial, part self-help guide, this book offers concrete steps on how to reduce stress in decision making.”

To see the 2005 TED talk on “The Paradox of Choice” watch below:

Some of the best quotes from the above, as provided on Schwartz’s TED page:

  • The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you choose.
  • The secret to happiness is low expectations.
  • “With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all.”
  • “The good news is you don’t need to be brilliant to be wise. The bad news is that without wisdom, brilliance isn’t enough.”

In an article posted this year on PBS.org, Schwartz answers critics who, citing newer research, have concluded the “Paradox of Choice” theory is wrong—“hogwash” even. Click on the link for details, but the following is his final summary paragraph:

…(T)he final story on the ‘paradox of choice’ has yet to be written. But to me, it is a beautiful example of how science works when it is doing what it should. An important idea goes from ‘unthinkable’ to ‘commonly assumed.’ Then, further work reveals that there are limits to this idea. Over time, we develop generalizations that are appropriately qualified and contextualized. People understand something they didn’t before, and spend their time and mental effort in ways that are more productive and satisfying than was the case before. This counts not as pseudoscience, but as scientific progress.

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