Why More Is Less
Barry Schwartz went to The Gap for a pair of jeans. He admits that, since he wears them until they completely fall apart, he hadn’t shopped for jeans for a long time.
He gave his size to the salesperson, 32-28, thinking that this would pretty much take care of it. But then a dizzying list of choices came: button-fly or zipper-fly? faded or nonfaded? stonewashed, acid-washed, or distressed? regular fit, relaxed fit, or easy fit? and, of course, what brand?
In his excellent book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less he says:
“The jeans I chose turned out just fine, but it occurred to me that day that buying a pair of pants should not be a daylong project. By creating all these options, the store undoubtedly had done a favor for customers with varied tastes and body types. However, by vastly expanding the range of choices, they had also created a new problem that needed to be solved. Before these options were available, a buyer like myself had to settle for an imperfect fit, but at least purchasing jeans was a five-minute affair. Now it was a complex decision in which I was forced to invest time, energy, and no small amount of self-doubt, anxiety, and dread.
“Buying jeans is a trivial matter, but it suggests a much larger theme . . . which is this: When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. As the number of available choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture, the autonomy, control, and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices keeps growing negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates.”
Anyone who’s traveled much appreciates our local supermarkets. But are there times that you are worn out by the choices? Have you ever gotten lost in the pain relief section? How many kinds of ibuprofen can there be? And do you really want ibuprofen or Tylenol or aspirin or . . . ? How about toothpaste: Crest or Colgate or AquaMan (or whatever it is)? whitening or nonwhitening? mint or fresh mint?
How about shopping for computers, printers, DVD players, cell phones? To say nothing of local telephone plans, long distance plans, electric company, wireless connectivity . . . . Is it any wonder that two decades after the fall of Ma Bell, 60% of the market is still ruled by AT&T, and half those customers just settle for the basic rates on the basic plans?
What church are you going to attend? Which service will you be at? Where are you going for your vacation? Who do you want to perform your colonoscopy now that you’re 50 (just to pull one out of the air)?
Schwartz points out some of the factors that impact the choices we make.
One example is anchoring. When we walk into a store, we tend to compare the prices, not realizing how much the stores have used anchoring to steer our purchases. If you see an $80 shirt in a store where most shirts are $40, it seems extravagant. But what if right next to it are a few shirts for $120? Then it begins to seem more reasonable.
He tells of one catalogue company that sells kitchen equipment which offered an automatic bread maker for $279. Few sold. Then they added a super-delux automatic bread maker for $429. Sales of the $279 one soared. With the super-delux model as the anchor, the other looked like a reasonable bargain.
We’re also impacted, often unknowingly, by framing. Do you buy the yogurt that is 5% fat or the one that is 95% fat free? Go for the fat free one — even though 95% fat free means it does have 5% fat. It just sounds more healthy.
“Even with relatively unimportant decisions, mistakes can take a toll. When you put a lot of time and effort into choosing a restaurant or a place to go on vacation or a new item of clothing, you want that effort to be rewarded with a satisfying result. As options increase, the effort involved in making decisions increases, so mistakes hurt even more. Thus the growth of options and opportunities for choice has three, related, unfortunate effects. It means that decisions require more effort. It makes mistakes more likely. It makes the psychological consequences of mistakes more severe.”
Next I’ll come to the big payoff of the book: the difference between a maximizer and a satisficer. There are some important things there about contentment, about joy, and even about marriage.