Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Not Just the Paradox of Choice but the Tyranny of Freedom Wrongly Understood

I little while ago I read Barry Schwartz's book "The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less".
Schwartz provides a nice summary of his work at one of the TED Conferences which can be watched here.
It is certainly worth your 20 minutes. Schwartz very well may rattle you a bit because he takes some  basic assumptions of our society out for re-examination. In fact, Schwartz doesn't rest at calling them assumptions he calls them dogmas and as he explains, the official dogma of all Western Industrial societies runs like this:
"If we are interested in maximizing the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximize individual freedom. The reason for this is that freedom is both, in and of itself good, valuable, worthwhile, essential to being human AND because if people have freedom than each of us can act on our own to do the things that will maximize our welfare and no one has to decide on our behalf. The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice. The more choice people have, the more freedom they have; and the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have."
A main theme of Schwartz's work is in making observations that our overwhelming options for choice, (particularly in, but not limited to, the area of consumer goods), are making us less happy not more happy. Schwartz is a psychologist so he looks at this from a psychological point of view and discovers that people's brains just are equipped to deal with all of the options and endless possibilities. In other words, we are finite, and when marketeers offer us what is seemingly infinite or limitless, our brains simply cannot cope. In fact, this constant barrage of choice leads to what is often called analysis paralysis and when we do make choices we end up less satisfied with the choices we have made. A more troubling side effect of all of this choice however is the heightened anxiety that is always buzzing in our heads, internally. In summary, Schwartz prescribes low expectations and reduction, (but not elimination), of options for choice.

But that can't be all there is to it, can it?