Christian Long

Barry Schwartz: The Paradox of Choice

In TED Talks on April 29, 2010 at 8:45 am

Extra credit reflection by DARCY S.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Barry Schwartz:  The Paradox of Choice

We all know how it feels to be overwhelmed:  overwhelming.

It feels as if all possible options are peering into your soul, beckoning you, trying to sell themselves in an ear piercing obnoxious voice. When staring at all the jeans in a Levi’s outlet, I sometimes feel like crying because I know there must be the perfect pair of jeans lying in there somewhere, but I feel as if no amount of time would be suitable for all the digging and trying on I would have to do in order to find them. At that pinnacle point of frustration, I can’t be bothered to choose a pair of jeans, because I know I won’t be satisfied. I’d rather forget my individuality and wear white t-shirts and pants every day so I don’t have to choose a mall to go to then choose a store then from thousands of possibilities choose something to buy. Its one of the most tedious and wearisome processed we Westerners have set ourselves up for; and it’s one of the key points in Schwartz’s TED talk.

Schwartz says that all of these choices have several affects on our lives, the first of which being that people under the stress of too many options experience paralysis. They simply lose the will to make a decision. Everyone can relate to this experience. The supermarket offers so many options of sun block, which in reality probably all contain the same components. To the consumer there is a cornucopia of options that submerge one in a vast sea of indecision and confusion. Whether the decision that has to be made is important or inconsequential, the result of this confusion is frustration, which turns off the desire to choose something in the first place. Many companies that sell to the average consumer end up not receiving as much profit as they could be as a result of overwhelming the consumer with too many options. This leads to an interesting concept, which is that there may be multiple motives behind broadening product to choose from, and the motives might have different affects down the line as the consumer is faced with choice.

There are at least 30 flavours of Pringles potato chips, two-thirds of which are repulsive. As one can imagine, the most common flavour is original and this is because the recipe has been tested over and over again until created just perfectly that many people will want to buy Pringles. Once they create a logo and a style, the company can expand their ideas and create new flavours such as hamburger. This is one way a company creates variety with a product and does not see much demand in the supply-demand relationship: expansion through trial. In this way, the company sees little demand because they have distasteful ideas that do not appeal to consumers. A different way that a company expands variety and sees no demand is by addressing different needs of their product. When a shampoo company creates a few varying shampoos for different lifestyles, people will easily make the choice that is best suited for them personally. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a company could make a specific shampoo for chestnut brunettes who partake in maximum exercise and attract allergens in their hair during the springtime and a totally different shampoo for chestnut brunettes who have weak ends, dandruff and many animals. Consumers who are caught between specifics are more likely to choose the most basic or become overwhelmed and not choose at all.

The second negative effect too many choices can have is we end up being less satisfied with our choice, and the science behind this is simple. Faced with multiple pairs of jeans, a consumer imagines in the dozens of racks hangs the iconic pair of jeans: one that is grey-washed, studded down the legs and is relatively comfortable. Naturally, after searching for thirty minutes we become tired of looking for that perfect pair, and we settle. The key to this effect is how we settle. When we settle for mediocrity, we still envision perfection and are unsatisfied with our choice. Of course, there are those special humans whose brains are hardwired for hours of searching for the perfect buy, but Schwartz is obviously not addressing you people.

The third effect is the skyrocketing of our expectations, which often leads to, yet again, the bothersome unsatisfactory feeling. When looking at the cornucopia of specifically made hair shampoos, we once again feel as if one of them must be the perfect one for my hair; one of them must fix my frizziness and split ends and dull colour. Then the finagling, devious little personification of reality comes along and reminds us that no such perfection exists. Upon deciding, we end up settling for mediocrity after peeling our eyes over every label and disclaimer, and after using the product our expectations are shot down by the metaphorical Red Baron of reality.

Finally, we blame ourselves for our poor choice. Isn’t that a bummer?

Supposedly this is one of those times when less is more. With fewer choices to pick from, our expectations are lower and consequently we end up happier with our choice as opposed to when we assumed that perfection existed. So like Schwartz said, the secret to happiness truly is to maintain low expectations. We end up being happier when we don’t expect random acts of kindness to be displayed towards us or if the orange crop in Florida is higher this year so your favourite brand of orange juice is cheaper. When we expect nice things to happen all the time, we are often disappointed when they don’t happen. In simpler words, pessimistic outlook leads to more surprise and more happiness. Of course, pessimists aren’t usually taken by surprise anyhow. All in all, though, it’s healthier for our mental sanity to have to choose between two options and not two hundred.

P.S.: A funny clip from The Colbert Report regarding Pringles.


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