February 1, 2004
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
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
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
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
For reprint rights, email the author:
Here are some other suggested readings on the
psychology of choice: