The Paradox of Choice

How we can be paralyzed by our flexibility.

Autonomy and freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice

Barry Schwartz is an American psychologist and author whose research addresses morality, decision-making, and the inter-relationships between behavioral science and society.

In his best-seller book, The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz explains why the explosion in consumer choice has, ironically, made us collectively miserable. We tend to value freedom highly, so it is counterintuitive that an increase in freedom leads to a decrease in satisfaction, but more often than not that is the case.

The reason? Every choice comes with its own opportunity cost. An abundance of options doesn’t free us from difficult decisions, it makes every decision difficult.

We have all experienced this in our own lives. Try buying a pair of running shoes, and you’ll come across a dozen different options. Each model has its pros and cons, and no single brand stands out head and shoulders above the others. The more you study your options, the more you struggle to make a decision. No matter what you choose, you’ll face a tradeoff of some sort. Comfort vs aesthetics. Price vs quality. Brand appeal vs practicality. Instead of being happy with any option because they are all good, you can only think about what you would lose by not choosing the others.

Extend this plethora of options from running shoes to literally every aspect of our lives, and you can begin to grasp the scale of choice paralysis that we are dealing with. Our brains quite literally aren’t designed to deal with this abundance of choices.

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