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Why More Is Less

2006 November 17
by Mike

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.

35 Responses leave one →
  1. November 17, 2006

    I feel the pain. I hate it when there are too many choices. Give me two or three to look at and let me go home! What kind of jeans do I want? Blue.

  2. November 17, 2006

    You mentioned toothpaste and colonoscopy in the same blog, so I’ll help you out with this one……don’t try to see your dentist for the colonoscopy!

    I work with lots or sales/marketing types that speak a different language than this CPA…..”Voice of Customer, consumer driven, yada, yada, yada…..” They still haven’t gotten me… mantra when approaching any shopping experience remains…..”In and Out, Noboby Gets Hurt!”

  3. Bek permalink
    November 17, 2006

    I agree with your comments and with Barry’s observations. It seems that our simple life is no longer just a matter of a few choices. Up here in the panhandle I’ve noticed some of the smaller cofc congregations growing because they offer the same choices we all grew up with. My dear friend Ahlene K has exposed me to the world of blogging and I read yours daily . . . just after reading Heartlight.

  4. November 17, 2006

    I wish the phone company had more choices! We called to establish new service. They said it would be $30/mo. Knowing somone who worked there we knew there was a discount plan and asked for it. They said that was it – #30/mo. We kept asking. Finally got the discount plan – 12.95/mo! We were thrilled until we got our first bill. After all the taxes, fees, etc = $30/mo! We were labbergasted!

    As I am sure you are thinking about as you type this post, church selection now falls under this umbrella. It seems like you used to have a few options and now you can pretty much pick a la carte. Thanks for the thoughts.

  5. November 17, 2006

    Choices are only an option for the middle/upper classes only.

    Poor people rarely get choices. They have become experts at waiting since that’s usually their only choice.

    Good post.

  6. November 17, 2006

    Good stuff Mike. As others have pointed out before – look at food. Poor people are concerned about having enough – not going hungry. Middle-class folks are concerned about taste – is this really what I want to eat now?- am I in a pizza mood? Wealthy people worry about food presentation. How does this meal look? We’re a rich society, with too much worry over stuff.

  7. don permalink
    November 17, 2006

    “Who do you want to perform your colonoscopy now that you’re 50 (just to pull one out of the air)? ”

    …that’s not where they pulled my colonoscopy out of.

  8. November 17, 2006

    Mike, I truly intended to comment on the whole liberation/deliberation thing, but with all this talk of colonoscopy I’ve decided to explore that concept.

    In keeping with the yougurt argument, I think it is best that we don’t focus one who we want doing our colonoscopy, but (1 t) rather, who we don’t want performing that end-o-expedition.

    Here are my top 5 least favorite colonoscopy choices and rationale:

    #5 – Grant Boone. Cracking jokes while poking cracks is not funny.
    $4 – Mike Cope. I don’t want my behind prodder to become Cope’s blog fodder.
    #3 – Alan Bastyr. If you know Alan, this is funny.
    #2 – My wife. Oh, she puts up with enough of my crap as it is.
    #1 – David Wray. Two words: Huge Hands

  9. November 17, 2006

    I’m glad you wrote this post because I agree with you(!). I’m really looking forward to the remainder of them on the same subject.

    For years and years I’ve been anti-malls and huge grocery stores and the like. I cannot tell you the number of times I have literally walked into a store, or just the entrance to a mall, even, and have turned around and walked back out because they seemed so overwhelming to the point of claustrophobia. And I’m no nut case, either. (Well, I suppose that last statment is a matter of opinion by those who know me best, but I don’t care around any outward traits that would suggest such. ha!)

    I was out in Dallas a couple of weekends ago and went with my daughter to a humongous new upscale grocery/deli/bakery/grill/resaurant/gourmet store in McKinney and I was amazed. The floors were beautifully polished stained concrete and wood, flowers bloomed everywhere, vast displays of every kind of food imaginable were set out, gourmet treats were handed out for free along with the recipes and/or prepared dishes you could buy.

    My daughter says she always spends more money on groceries at that store (which is the whole point of it to begin with) because of the vast array and selection of goods.

    That’s just for the necessity of food!! Absolutely amazing. . .. And way too much, imho.

    Cheers! Dee

  10. November 17, 2006

    Thanks for the laugh, Joel. Your rhyming is impeccable.

  11. November 17, 2006

    Also check out Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s book “Stumbling on Happiness” and philosopher William Irvine’s “On Desire: Why We Want What We Want.”

    I use these books along with the “Paradox of Choice” to deliver some lectures entitled “On the Impossibility of Happiness.” The title is tongue and cheek, simply highlighting how our quest for happiness is often difficult and confused.

    Schwartz is an excellent researcher, his book is sitting on top of some solid research. See here for more (if the links don’t work, copy and paste in browser):

  12. November 17, 2006

    What would it be like to live in Quile’s brain for a day?

  13. November 17, 2006

    Ever walked into a Guitar Center? Sensory overload!

  14. November 17, 2006

    The quote you shared reminds me a little of Marva J. Dawn’s Unfettered Hope where she writes about the impact our affluence has on the hope we have in Christ. It seems that the more choices we have that are designed to make our life easier or more convenient end up making it more difficult.

  15. November 17, 2006

    Hmmmm! Try living 150% below the federal poverty level – all these choices become moot questions and out of consideration. Food shopping is mostly done at food bank outlets. Clothes shopping is mostly done secondhand at Goodwill etc. But food and clothing are still available for those that wish to go looking for it – AND you can still have a smile on your face while living under the poverty level. Yeah! 🙂

  16. Ken permalink
    November 17, 2006

    I remember when we returned to Abilene after seven years in South America. In my first trip to the grocery store there was a whole section with just peas. No señora seated on a blanket with her basket of peas and a balance with her set of weights. Just shelves and shelves of choices… Del Monte, Safeway, low salt, creamed, with onions, very young early, etc., etc. I tried to make sense of it, but in the end just walked away frustrated (and pealess).
    Hopefully it is not so intimidating for a first time visitor to church!

    Ken Hines

  17. November 17, 2006

    Ok, so some people don’t like choice, then stay home. Most of the rest of us want choice (that’s why these big malls, etc. are so popular). And we aren’t worse people for wanting choice, either. What is so sad is that the same people (usually well-meaning Christians) tell us how materialistic we are and yet they go to Gap and Wal-Mart and these big malls. If you want to live a “simple” life then maybe you should give away your 2 cars, closets full of name-brand clothes, and closets themselves and live in a cave and eat bugs. (But don’t expect that the rest of us will follow you there). Until you do that, perhaps you should think twice about telling the rest of us how to live. (This is very sincerely written.)

  18. November 17, 2006

    Martin – I think you’re off base — at least with what Schwartz is talking about. This is not anti-choice. The book is in favor of choice (I tried carefully not to write pro-choice) and freedom. But it recognizes the inherent dangers among people who never find contentment. Let me write a bit more and then evaluate. I think it’s possible that you still won’t like it. But it’s a different point than you’re talking about. This is not a book about the simple life. It’s about the contented life.

  19. cam permalink
    November 17, 2006

    colonoscopy advice from my son – do not under any circumstances eat gumbo at any time remotely near to the beginning of the saltwater cleanse: & if you believe that you have reached a point where you cannot possibly take another sip of saltwater, trust your instincts and do not believe a third party who says that of course you can take one more little sip.

  20. Susan permalink
    November 17, 2006

    Men are now faced with what women have been faced with for 2 decades. Size is not universal. Even if you find a great fitting pair of black pants (after trying on 47 pair). You love them so much, you go back to the store the next day and buy the exact same pants in a grey. Guess what, they are longer and to tight in the waist.

    You are right on with the price thing. You don’t want to any more that $29.00 for a sweater at Old Navy. A $29.00 sweater at The Gap is a pretty good deal. If you found one at Banana Republic for that price, you would by three-but, they would not all fit the same.

    Choice is a good thing. But, to much of a good thing can be overwhelming. This is true for stores, activities, and churches.

  21. November 17, 2006

    I want someone performing my coloscopy that has some shred of decency left (if you can have any cnosidering the line of work you’re in). Some sort of decency that would cause him/her to not leave the scope (read: camera) laying down on the hospital bed facing the back of someone’s open gown so that the last thing they see before they drift off into twilight sleep is their own bare backside! That’s what I would want. If I were to go through another coloscopy…

  22. November 17, 2006

    you people really make my day enjoyable sometimes!

  23. November 17, 2006

    Answer to Cope’s comment #11:

    Lonely, spacious, etc…

  24. November 17, 2006

    big grocery stores are actually better for the poor than small ones are. The reason they got big in the first place is efficiency and that efficiency (combined with buying in bulk) is what allows them to sell food much cheaper than at mom and pop shops. The poor tax is real, and its not caused by big evil corporations. Its caused by cities that make it nearly impossible for a walmart or other discount chain to go into the inner city. With absence of competition, small stores can sell at higher prices, and even with competition of small stores, they cannot buy in bulk enough to sellthings as cheap as the large places.

    So, keep on supporting mom and pops that are ripping people off. I’ll shop at kroger and walmart.

  25. juditko permalink
    November 17, 2006

    When I came back from the mission field in Czech Republic in 1995, I was literally dizzied by the range of choices in our supermarkets. Laundry detergent took more than a half hour to choose because I was trying to be frugal at the same time I was trying to choose. There were two kinds in Prague: one worked, one didn’t.

    The real mountain was the cereal aisle; two kinds of that in Prague, too. And who really ate cereal there anyway? Back home again, I was staggered by the 100 foot aisle, filled on both sides. It was terrifying. I didn’t go down the cereal aisle for over a year after the initial encounter.

    I remember this reentry shock rather fondly, and I appreciate choice. But the everyday choices of the American consumer, as wonderful as they are, complicate life. I tried to buy regular Crest the other day at the Abilene Wal-mart. Good luck. Tartar cavity whitening baking soda berry lime orange mint aloe raspberry, but no plain. It took me over 20 minutes. I dread my tube of toothpaste running out. And I know this: once I accidentally stumble on to one I like, I won’t shop the others, price or not. I don’t want to spend 20 minutes on toothpaste! So, the word for the producer: woe be unto the company that discontinues a favorite product…it’s like losing the anchoring familar face in the sea of confusion.

    I don’t want more credit cards. I don’t want a cell phone that dances. I don’t want a car that changes colors. I want to save my time and energy for the choices THAT REALLY MATTER. Storing up treasures in Heaven can be a real challenge in America, huh?

  26. November 17, 2006

    You have no ides how I can relate to your re-entry shock. When I returned to the US after 30 years in Mexico it was horrific.
    Many of my usual products were unavailable, and the ones that were carried a totally different pronounciation from the customary one.
    I’d start out the door of my house with a to-do list, stop on the porch and ask myself where I was supposed to go to find everything needed. The automatic switches of daily life were invisible, gone, poofh, gone. There was no neighborhood shopping, all huge shopping centers far away from my little apartment. And as you say, the display of duplicated products, miles and miles of them, was overwhelming. I was ready to turn around and go back HOME [Mexico, that is].

    I’ll never forget the expression of shock and almost snooty ‘Well!” I received when a friend said she would pick me up at one of the shops and when I asked what car she drove. She said a Lexus. Her shock came when I asked what kind of car is that? Mexico doesn’t or didn’t have any Lexus. Sorry about that. LOL So I adopted my own explanatory expression when something came up I was unacquainted with, “rememer, I’ve been on Mars for the last 30 years.”

    btw-if you read the ingredients of the different toothpastes you may be surprised to find they all contain the same ones. 🙂

  27. November 17, 2006

    My wife works in the “Endo” lab at a local hospital. It has been interesting to hear stories from congregants ( not her) when they came into the room for the procedure and my sweet wife(pracher’s wife) was there to assist in the procedure. At 50 and my day in the endo lab is approaching, I am not sure if I want her in there (pardon) or not. Great post on choice. Less choice makes me more happy.

  28. Amy permalink
    November 17, 2006

    Oh my, don’t get me started on clothing shopping. With three girls plus me (oh yeah, and John) the choices are overwhelming. Three words: Target Clearance Rack.

  29. karen permalink
    November 18, 2006

    when we moved from a large city to a smaller one, it made shopping all so much easier. if the 2 or 3 stores did not have the “perfect” shoes for my kids, then, oh well, i just got what i could find. no more running around to numerous stores looking for the one perfect item. less choices made for more time. now you can shop for anything on the internet 24/7. that just takes too much time most of the time.

  30. November 18, 2006

    This whole sequence of posts was just way too visual. Thanks for nuthin’.

    Schembechler RIP,


  31. November 18, 2006

    Seriously, this has been on my mind lately. I just got back from being abroad for 6 months, and America has a ridiculous amount of choices. I have spent the last 3 days just walking through stores looking at all the crap you can buy here. You can get ANYTHING you want! Its no wonder generally we think that life is all about us! Marketing tells us it is.

  32. Chris permalink
    November 20, 2006

    Just got back from Europe. Since they threw my toothpaste away at the airport I looked at a few stores over in the Greek islands for my brand. No luck–had two chioces too, and they were a ridiculous price.
    The supermarket was almost as big as my living room.

  33. November 20, 2006

    Kathy – Excellent point you’ve made. The attitude of dissatisfaction (which I continued with this morning — 11/20) can apply to wealthy and poor. But Schwartz is making this claim: “It is possible that a wide array of options can turn people into maximizers. If this is true, then the proliferation of options not only makes people who are maximizers miserable, but it may also make people who are satisficers into maximizers.” Assuming that’s true (and he argues it very persuasively), then this becomes more of a problem for those with discretionary income.

    Juditko (and others) – Excellent example of the dizzying array of options. And that’s in area after area of life.

    Amy – You’re heading down the right path. We have to decide about deciding. In other words, we must decide which decisions warrant more time and investigation and which decisions just call for setting criteria and standards and then making the purchases. When you suggest, heading to Target for what’s available, that’s a good example of deciding that you won’t obsess or be driven by status. You’ll find what you need, select something that meets your standards, and go on without regrets. (This note doubles as my affirmation of my daugher-in-law and of Deana N. and of so many others who have this amazing attachment to Target.)

  34. Amy permalink
    November 20, 2006

    We really go to Target for the Starbucks.

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