The Paradox Of Choice

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2010-03-23
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In the spirit of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, a social critique of our obsession with choice, and how it contributes to anxiety, dissatisfaction and regret. This paperback includes a new P.S. section with author interviews, insights, features, suggested readings, and more.

Whether we’re buying a pair of jeans, ordering a cup of coffee, selecting a long-distance carrier, applying to college, choosing a doctor, or setting up a 401(k), everyday decisions--both big and small--have become increasingly complex due to the overwhelming abundance of choice with which we are presented.

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.

In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz explains at what point choice--the hallmark of individual freedom and self-determination that we so cherish--becomes detrimental to our psychological and emotional well-being. In accessible, engaging, and anecdotal prose, Schwartz shows how the dramatic explosion in choice--from the mundane to the profound challenges of balancing career, family, and individual needs--has paradoxically become a problem instead of a solution. Schwartz also shows how our obsession with choice encourages us to seek that which makes us feel worse.

By synthesizing current research in the social sciences, Schwartz makes the counterintuitive case that eliminating choices can greatly reduce the stress, anxiety, and busyness of our lives. He offers eleven practical steps on how to limit choices to a manageable number, have the discipline to focus on the important ones and ignore the rest, and ultimately derive greater satisfaction from the choices you have to make.

Schwartz lays out a convincing argument.... He is a crisp, engaging writer with an excellent sense of pace.” -Austin American-Statesman

“Wonderfully readable.” -Washington Post

“An insightful study that winningly argues its subtitle.” -Philadelphia Inquirer

Schwartz has plenty of insightful things to say about the perils of everyday life.” -Booklist

Schwartz offers helpful suggestions of how we can manage our world of overwhelming choices.” -St. Petersburg Times

“Brilliant.... The case Schwartz makes... is compelling, the implications disturbing.... An insightful book.” -Christian Science Monitor

“With its clever analysis, buttressed by sage New Yorker cartoons, The Paradox of Choice is persuasive.” -BusinessWeek

Table of Contents

Prologue. The Paradox of Choice: A Road Map 1(8)
Chapter 1. Let's Go Shopping
Chapter 2. New Choices
Chapter 3. Deciding and Choosing
Chapter 4. When Only the Best Will Do
Chapter 5. Choice and Happiness
Chapter 6. Missed Opportunities
Chapter 7. "If Only...": The Problem of Regret
Chapter 8. Why Decisions Disappoint: The Problem of Adaptation
Chapter 9. Why Everything Suffers from Comparison
Chapter 10. Whose Fault Is It? Choice, Disappointment, and Depression
Chapter 11. What to Do About Choice
Notes 237(20)
Index 257


The Paradox of Choice
Why More Is Less

Chapter One

Let's Go Shopping

A Day at the Supermarket

Scanning the shelves of my local supermarket recently, Ifound 85 different varieties and brands of crackers. As I read thepackages, I discovered that some brands had sodium, others didn't.Some were fat-free, others weren't. They came in big boxes andsmall ones. They came in normal size and bite size. There weremundane saltines and exotic and expensive imports.

My neighborhood supermarket is not a particularly large store,and yet next to the crackers were 285 varieties of cookies. Amongchocolate chip cookies, there were 21 options. Among Goldfish (Idon't know whether to count them as cookies or crackers), therewere 20 different varieties to choose from.

Across the aisle were juices -- 13 "sports drinks," 65 "box drinks"for kids, 85 other flavors and brands of juices, and 75 iced teas andadult drinks. I could get these tea drinks sweetened (sugar or artificialsweetener), lemoned, and flavored.

Next, in the snack aisle, there were 95 options in all -- chips(taco and potato, ridged and flat, flavored and unflavored, salted andunsalted, high fat, low fat, no fat), pretzels, and the like, including adozen varieties of Pringles. Nearby was seltzer, no doubt to wash down the snacks. Bottled water was displayed in at least 15 flavors.

In the pharmaceutical aisles, I found 61 varieties of suntan oiland sunblock, and 80 different pain relievers -- aspirin, acetaminophen,ibuprofen; 350 milligrams or 500 milligrams; caplets, capsules,and tablets; coated or uncoated. There were 40 options fortoothpaste, 150 lipsticks, 75 eyeliners, and 90 colors of nail polishfrom one brand alone. There were 116 kinds of skin cream, and360 types of shampoo, conditioner, gel, and mousse. Next to themwere 90 different cold remedies and decongestants. Finally, therewas dental floss: waxed and unwaxed, flavored and unflavored,offered in a variety of thicknesses.

Returning to the food shelves, I could choose from among 230soup offerings, including 29 different chicken soups. There were 16varieties of instant mashed potatoes, 75 different instant gravies,120 different pasta sauces. Among the 175 different salad dressingswere 16 "Italian" dressings, and if none of them suited me, I couldchoose from 15 extra-virgin olive oils and 42 vinegars and make myown. There were 275 varieties of cereal, including 24 oatmealoptions and 7 "Cheerios" options. Across the aisle were 64 differentkinds of barbecue sauce and 175 types of tea bags.

Heading down the homestretch, I encountered 22 types offrozen waffles. And just before the checkout (paper or plastic; cashor credit or debit), there was a salad bar that offered 55 differentitems.

This brief tour of one modest store barely suggests the bountythat lies before today's middle-class consumer. I left out the freshfruits and vegetables (organic, semi-organic, and regular old fertilizedand pesticized), the fresh meats, fish, and poultry (free-rangeorganic chicken or penned-up chicken, skin on or off, whole or inpieces, seasoned or unseasoned, stuffed or empty), the frozen foods,the paper goods, the cleaning products, and on and on and on.

A typical supermarket carries more than 30,000 items. That's alot to choose from. And more than 20,000 new products hit theshelves every year, almost all of them doomed to failure.

Comparison shopping to get the best price adds still anotherdimension to the array of choices, so that if you were a truly carefulshopper, you could spend the better part of a day just to select a boxof crackers, as you worried about price, flavor, freshness, fat,sodium, and calories. But who has the time to do this? Perhapsthat's the reason consumers tend to return to the products theyusually buy, not even noticing 75% of the items competing for theirattention and their dollars. Who but a professor doing researchwould even stop to consider that there are almost 300 differentcookie options to choose among?

Supermarkets are unusual as repositories for what are called"nondurable goods," goods that are quickly used and replenished.So buying the wrong brand of cookies doesn't have significant emotionalor financial consequences. But in most other settings, peopleare out to buy things that cost more money, and that are meant tolast. And here, as the number of options increases, the psychologicalstakes rise accordingly.

Shopping for Gadgets

Continuing my mission to explore our range of choices, Ileft the supermarket and stepped into my local consumer electronicsstore. Here I discovered:

  • 45 different car stereo systems, with 50 different speaker setsto go with them.
  • 42 different computers, most of which could be customizedin various ways.
  • 27 different printers to go with the computers.
  • 110 different televisions, offering high definition, flat screen,varying screen sizes and features, and various levels of soundquality.
  • 30 different VCRs and 50 different DVD players.
  • 20 video cameras.
  • 85 different telephones, not counting the cellular phones.
  • 74 different stereo tuners, 55 CD players, 32 tape players,and 50 sets of speakers. (Given that these components couldbe mixed and matched in every possible way, that providedthe opportunity to create 6,512,000 different stereo systems.)

And if you didn't have the budget or the stomach forconfiguring your own stereo system, there were 63 small,integrated systems to choose from.

Unlike supermarket products, those in the electronics storedon't get used up so fast. If we make a mistake, we either have to livewith it or return it and go through the difficult choice process allover again. Also, we really can't rely on habit to simplify our decision,because we don't buy stereo systems every couple of weeksand because technology changes so rapidly that chances are ourlast model won't exist when we go out to replace it. At these prices,choices begin to have serious consequences.

The Paradox of Choice
Why More Is Less
. Copyright © by Barry Schwartz. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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Customer Reviews

Applicable to everything in life May 24, 2011
The Paradox of Choice is an excellent textbook with a lot of interesting information about the habits people have in making decisions. Finally, this textbook offers suggestions on how to make better choices and reduce stress. It also has very useful tips on how to reduce anxiety in your life. All in all, an excellent course on dealing with an increasingly complex world. I received this cheap textbook within days. Seller was good, I give my highest recommendation.
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The Paradox Of Choice: 5 out of 5 stars based on 1 user reviews.

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