From Jones and Bartlett, a book on Stem Cells from Dr. Ann A. Kiessling and Scott C. Anderson:

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February 1, 2004

Choice Words

Can you really suffer from too many choices? Yes, if one of the choices is psychobabble.

Recent articles by Barry Schwartz, professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College, have propounded a most remarkable argument: that Americans have too many choices, leading them to feel harried and depressed. To encapsulate this interesting theory, a new term has been coined, the "Tyranny of Choice."

Schwartz, whose work has been supported by the NSF, has written two books on the subject. The first, "The Costs of Living: How Market Freedom Erodes the Best Things in Life," was a warning shot over the bow of the ship of commerce. The second, "The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less" extends the theory into Orwellian doublethink of the first order.

Dr. Schwartz is on a roll, getting ink in the New York Times, USA Today, CNN, the Christian Science Monitor and Parade Magazine, to mention just a few. In all of these, he makes his point that choice is ruining the mental health of the country.

Schwartz cites a study by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, who studied the buying habits of people in a grocery store. They set up two different tables, one with six jars of jam, and another with thirty. They found that while more people were attracted to the bigger display, fewer people bought anything. Their conclusion? People were simply overwhelmed by the choices. Their message, especially to marketers, is to avoid inundating their customers.

Dr. Schwartz takes this study to mean that we all need fewer choices. In an article for the New York Times, Dr. Schwartz extends this to retirement plans, asserting that fewer options for retirement will make us happier. He seems to assume, given the jam study, that anything over six options will just stress us out. The government, he suggests, would be wise to limit the freedom of choice and relieve Americans of the horrible burden of making up our own minds.

But wait a minute. Before we jam up the government and the capitalist system, let's look a little closer at what the experiment really tells us. How long does the typical person have to linger at a food display in a store? For most of us, I would guess it would be about 5 seconds - the time it takes to grab a cracker with jam on it and get back to the job of shopping. Let's be generous though, and allot a whole minute to the jam table. With six items, you get a leisurely ten seconds per jam, perhaps enough time to sample and learn about the different flavors and make a choice.

But if you find thirty jams on display, you will have only 2 seconds per jam to make your choice. That's simply not enough time, and you instinctively know it, even if you don't do the calculations. So you pass on the whole exercise. Why buy something that you can't research? You might get something you hate.

Does this research justify Dr. Schwartz's conclusion that we are suffering from a surfeit of choice? Does the jam experiment prove that we can't handle more than a handful of options?

Dr. Edward Deci, professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester, and the author of several studies on choice, says, "The optimal number of options to choose from depends on the situation and the person. When you have more time, more information, and a more important decision, you typically would want to consider more options, and some people always want more than other people do. So, with an important decision about retirement, it is something most people would want to spend time on."

In other words, the main limit on the optimal number of choices depends on its importance to you. If you are a jam connoisseur, thirty selections will not be nearly enough. For the rest of us, blackberry jam is just fine, and preferably the cheap stuff.

Dr. Schwartz's bottom line on capitalism is that it erodes our happiness by providing too many opportunities. Variety, he says, can lead to anxiety, stress and clinical depression. The good doctor would have loved communist Russia, where there was a single brand of state jam, and mercifully few choices. Many people in Russia, however, favored the state vodka as a tonic to mitigate the pain of that bleak, choice-free existence.

Dr. Deci has written about choice and has shown conclusively that choice matters. People who are allowed to make choices are uniformly happier than if someone else makes the decision for them. You only have to look briefly into your soul to find immediate confirmation of this conjecture. That, in fact, is the very bedrock of America and the essence of freedom. To suggest that it contributes to a national malaise, and perhaps is the cause of depression in the country, is wildly off base.

Dr. Deci says, "I am very wary about anyone who wants to take away options from others or limit other people's opportunities for choice. It amazes me that some psychologists are arguing that we should limit human freedom."

But this is America, and when it comes to wacky theories, there are a lot to choose from.

Copyright © 2000-2014 by Scott Anderson
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Here are some other suggested readings on the psychology of choice: