Saturday, September 13, 2008

Good News: Fewer Choices

I read some great news in the New York Times the other day: supermarkets are getting smaller and offering fewer choices. “After years of building bigger stores — many larger than a football field and carrying 60,000 items — retailers are experimenting with radically smaller grocery stores…. ‘The average person goes shopping for 22 minutes,’ said Phil Lempert, who edits, a Web site that tracks retail trends. ‘You can’t see 30,000 or 40,000 products. We are moving into an era when people want less assortment.’”

Personally, I agree with many of the 106 commenters on the article that “hell is like a big box store” where you can’t find what you’re looking for and there are no employees to ask – and when you do find it, there are a hundred feet of variations, and you are at a loss as to whether there is any meaningful difference among them.

The prevailing wisdom among American economists and policy-makers is that no matter how much choice consumers have, they always want more. But a growing body of research shows that in many cases, people with fewer choices are happier. Swarthmore psychology professor Barry Schwartz has cogently explained why in his often-cited book The Paradox of Choice and in an article in Scientific American (see references below). One of the most powerful reasons is opportunity cost: losses have a much greater psychological impact than gains, so the more choices you have to forego to pick one among them, the more the unhappiness of what you’re missing out on outweighs the pleasure of having the item you chose.

Schwartz cites research that shows that more options often leads to less satisfaction or resistance to even making a choice. Lyle Brenner of the University of Florida, for instance, showed that subjects assigned a lesser dollar value to a magazine if they were choosing it from many magazines and a higher value when presented with the same magazine by itself. In other research, Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper set up a table at a specialty food store, offering samples of jam and a coupon to buy any flavor. Half the subjects had six flavors to choose from and half had 24. Overwhelmingly, subjects were more likely to actually purchase jam when they had had fewer choices.

The tyranny of too much choice particularly affects what Schwartz calls “optimizers” – people who are not satisfied with a decision unless they have evaluated all the options and chosen the best one. In contrast, “satisficers,” a term Schwartz borrows from the late Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and economist Herbert Simon, establish a set of criteria, look until they come to the first option that meets all the criteria, and stop there, without considering if there are even better choices.

So, here comes a confession. My name is Margaret, and I’m an optimizer (all together, now, “Hi, Margaret” – and, by the way, where's the nearest 12-step group for optimizers?). I lose sleep over things like picking an Internet provider, cell phone plan, and investment options for my meager savings. I would have much more free time if I did not feel compelled to do extensive comparison shopping for electronic equipment, appliances, insurance, and every other big or small household or personal need. Clothes shopping, at least, is less stressful since my daughter suggested I buy all clothes of a similar color. God bless black, navy, and brown – it makes getting dressed in the morning so much simpler.

Another complicating factor of too much choice is the way that humans make decisions. Economists assume that decisions are made “rationally,” by which they mean each person makes judgments that are consistent, according to that person’s values, and that the decisions will predict the level of happiness for that person. But Schwartz’s work challenges the assumption of predictability. And a large body of research shows that there are strong biases in human decision-making that challenge the assumption of consistency.

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (1981) conducted an experiment that showed that people will make a different decision depending on how the question is framed. Subjects were asked to make a decision about a hypothetical case of a public health program to combat an outbreak of a lethal disease that threatens 600 people. The problem was framed in two different ways. One framing emphasized saving lives. The program would save 200 lives, and without it there was a 1/3 chance of saving everyone and a 2/3 chance of saving no one. Most people chose to implement the program. The other, essentially equivalent framing emphasized losing lives. With the program, 400 people would die; without it, there was a 1/3 chance that no one would die, vs. a 2/3 chance that everyone would die. With this framing, most people chose not to implement the program.

Barry Schwartz argues that there is a “strong correlation between maximizing and measures of depression” and that “overwhelming choice at least contributes to the epidemic of unhappiness spreading through modern society.” He ends his article with some warnings about the wrong-headedness of many policies that are being touted as “what people want.”

“A point is reached at which increased choice brings increased misery rather than increased opportunity. It appears that American society has long since passed that point…. Our society would be well served to rethink its worship of choice. As I write this, public debate continues about privatization of Social Security (so people could select their retirement investments), privatization of Medicare and prescription drug benefits (so people could choose their own health plans), and choice in public education. And in the private sphere, medical ethicists treat the idea of "patient autonomy" as sacrosanct, as if it goes without saying that having patients choose their treatments will make them better off. Software developers design their products so that users can customize them to their own specific needs and tastes, as if the resulting complexity and confusion are always a price worth paying to maximize user flexibility. And manufacturers keep offering new products or new versions of old products, as if we needed more variety. The lesson of my research is that developments in each of these spheres may well rest on assumptions that are deeply mistaken.”

I’m with Schwartz: the American people of the twenty-first century need fewer choices. With all the time that would be freed up by eliminating the need to evaluate meaningless choices, maybe we would have more time to think about what kind of a country we want to live in, what is the best way to relate to the rest of the world, and what kind of leaders we need to take us where we want to go.


Martin, Andrew. “Miles of Aisles for Milk? Not Here,” New York Times (Sept. 9, 2008).

Schwartz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers (2004).

Schwartz, Barry. “The Tyranny of Choice,” Scientific American 290, no. 4 (Apr. 2004), pp. 70-75.

Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice,” Science, New Series 211, no. 4481 (Jan. 30, 1981), pp. 453-458.

1 comment:

Gina Hagler said...

My name is Gina, and I'm definitely a satisficer. I decided a while ago that the Best is the enemy of the Good Enough - and that generally what is Best is relative and not an absolute, whereas what is Good Enough is sometimes the Best and rarely less than Good Enough!