Barry Schwartz: The Paradox of Choice

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"The official dogma ['of all Western 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 both that freedom is, in and of itself, good, valuable, worthwhile, essential to being human, and because if people have freedom, then 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. This, I think, is so deeply embedded in the water supply that it wouldn't occur to anyone to question it. ... [There are] 175 salad dressings in my supermarket if you don't count the 10 extra-virgin olive oils and 12 balsamic vinegars you could buy to make a large number of your own salad dressings, in the off chance that none of the 175 the store has on offer suits you." So begins psychology professor Barry Schwartz's TED Talk, The Paradox of Choice. In his twenty-minute talk, Schartz discusses the consequences of having many choices. While we're all familiar with these kinds of problems (have you ever tried to choose a cell phone plan?), and Schwartz offers few practical solutions, it's interesting to hear his detailed discussion of the specific psychological effects that come from an excess of choices -- and the suggestion that while things aren't "better" with fewer choices, they basically feel better. It comes off as partly a cranky diatribe, but also an amusing and intelligent discourse. I really got a kick out of this talk.

Recommended for: those interested in psychology, marketing, human behavior, and how things "used to be better" (back when they were actually worse). Pull quote: "The secret to happiness is low expectations."

Warning: there is fleeting partial cartoon nudity (yeah, I know, I had to find a way to describe that) around 12 minutes in. I doubt anyone's going to get fire for it, but FYI.

Schwartz wrote a book on this topic, which gets mixed reviews -- some of which just encourage you to watch the TED Talk to get the short version.

Note: you may appreciate the high-resolution MP4 version for better video quality.

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October 19, 2011 - 10:49am
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