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Barry Schwartz: The Paradox of Choice

"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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Yale's Insanely Popular Happiness Course Is Now Open to Everyone Online
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Yale University's happiest course is giving people yet another reason to smile. After breaking registration records, "Psychology and the Good Life" has been repurposed into a free online course anyone can take, Quartz reports.

Psychology professor Laurie Santos debuted the class in the 2018 spring semester, and it's officially the most popular course in the university's 317-year history. About 1200 students, or a quarter of Yale's undergraduate student body, are currently enrolled. Now that a free version of the course has launched on Coursera, the curriculum is about to reach even more learners.

The online "Science of Well-Being" class is led by Santos from her home. Throughout the course, students will learn about happiness from a psychological perspective, including misconceptions about happiness and activities that have been proven to boost life satisfaction. "The purpose of the course is to not only learn what psychological research says about what makes us happy but also to put those strategies into practice," the course description reads.

Each section comes with readings, video lessons, and a quiz, as well as the chance to connect and brainstorm with classmates. After passing the assignments, students come away from the six-week course with a certificate and hopefully a broader understanding of the factors that contribute to a happy life. You can visit the course page over at Coursera to enroll.

[h/t Quartz]

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Overcome Your Fear of Embarrassment by Imagining People Reacting to Your Fart
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Everyone gets embarrassed occasionally, but not everyone reacts in the same way. Some people have a deep-rooted fear of embarrassment, and seek to avoid it as much as possible. You can't go your whole life without ever embarrassing yourself, though, unless you remove yourself from human company entirely. So if you are prone to feeling embarrassed and self-conscious, you have to learn to deal with it effectively. A new study spotted by Big Think suggests that a relatively easy trick can help minimize embarrassment. You just have to get outside of yourself.

The research, conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and UCLA and published in Motivation and Emotion, looked at the problem through a business-school lens—in other words, for people who are really worried about public embarrassment, that fear might affect what they buy. They might hesitate to buy something because they don't want to ask questions about it or don't want to be seen buying it, or they might buy even more of it to avoid embarrassment in the future (say, if it's Beano).

The research was aimed at people who are high in what psychologists call "public self-consciousness." These individuals are ultra-aware of how they appear to others, and are often very concerned with how people see them, so they try to avoid potential embarrassment as much as possible. They “tend to perceive themselves to be in the social ‘spotlight' and focus too much on the situation,” the study's authors write.

In three different tests, the researchers introduced embarrassing situations to UCLA students. First, they had students read a Beano ad involving a yoga student who lets out an accidental fart ("guaranteed to linger forever," as the copywriter put it), then answer questions about how much they identified with the farter in the situation and how they felt. They found that participants who were high in public self-consciousness tended to imagine themselves as the farter in the situation while reading the ad, rather than seeing themselves as an observer, and felt more embarrassed reading it than other participants.

In a subsequent test, the researchers asked students to read an ad about a study in which volunteers would be asked personal questions about sensitive issues like genital herpes. They then answered questions about how likely they would be to volunteer, how they would expect to feel during that type of interview, and how they expected the study administrators would react to them during that interview. They found that self-conscious people were more likely to say they would volunteer if they were asked first about how the people administrating the study would likely react to volunteers, forcing them to consider the outsider's perspective before they were asked if they would take part.

In the third test, the researchers recruited students to again consider embarrassing farts. Two ads for gas-prevention products each showed the same image of four people sitting on a couch together, with one guy sitting alone on one end and three women sitting on the other end. One ad read, "Rip. Accidentally passing gas in front of a crush is one of the most embarrassing experiences. Guaranteed to linger forever." Another added an extra twist: "Others will know what it's like. Put yourself in their shoes … would you giggle? Would you be horrified? Would you stare?"

Participants who read the first ad were more likely to say they would buy the gas-preventing product to keep them from experiencing the embarrassment of a public fart. If they read the second ad, they reported less interest in buying it.

In any social situation, it's probably a good idea to imagine that you are not the center of everyone's attention. For people who are prone to self-consciousness, that kind of thought pattern can be even more helpful than for most. While it's easy to default to thinking of yourself as the star of the movie of your life, it might be better to imagine what it's like to be part of the audience—one that's really, really rooting for you, farts and all.

[h/t Big Think]

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