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The Paradox of Choice Lost Me at Hello

My friend Geoff at The Junto started a book club at his place of business, P’unk Avenue. I thought I’d read along. The book to be read is The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz.

Ding #1 came in the intro. Much of the funding for the research in the book (and perhaps funding for the book itself) came from the Positive Psychology set. As a scientist and technologist, I have to say I’m not at all impressed with the dubious basis of the Positive Psych movement, the center at Penn, and its leader Marty Seligman (Just look into the Templeton Foundation and its religious objectives, then ask yourself how religion gets into the business of funding research, and how reliable those results must be…)

Marty Seligman is mentioned in the first few words of The Paradox of Choice’s Acknowledgments. That is usually enough to stop me. But I read through it and moved onto the first page. This is where we hit Ding #2. Mr. Schwartz begins with whining about how hard it was to shop for a pair of jeans. Not, mind you, how hard it is to find jeans that fit, but Mr. Schwartz complains that it took him more than 5 minutes to shop for a pair of jeans because, Horror of Horrors!, the store clerk tells him that the store has different options in jean styles:

“Do you want them slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy or extra baggy?” she replied. “Do you want them stonewashed, acid-washed, or distressed? Do you want them button-fly or zipper-fly? Do you want them faded or regular?”

This was all too much for Mr. Schwartz. He complains that he just wants “regular” jeans and that the whole shopping trip should have taken less than 5 minutes. He says:

Before these options were available, a buyer like myself had to settle for an imperfect fit, but at least purchasing jeans was a five-minute affair. Now it was a complex decision in which I was forced to invest time, energy and no small amount of self-doubt, anxiety, and dread.

This was where I stopped reading. Let me tell you why.

1. The whole image/metaphor reeks of solely the male perspective. We women don’t want to settle for an imperfect fit. We’ve been doing that for years and we pushed the industry to give us more options. We could use a few more, actually. Mr. Schwartz’s whole complaint and value set (time is worth more than effort in terms of looking your best) did not apply to me. The rest of the book would undoubtedly be tainted with this old-white-guy perspective, and I have had enough of that.

2. Why did Mr. Schwartz go to the Gap (or some similar denim specialty store) to buy jeans? He could’ve had his 5-minute shopping experience at a store like Kohl’s or JC Penney, where the jean selections for men are trimmed to the bare essentials. Mr. Schwartz fabricated this situation just for the book. I’m sure he doesn’t normally shop at the junior or trendy stores normally. If he set up this shopping situation for the book’s sake, then what other research in the book was set up? His credibility was lost even further. This plus the whole Templeton Foundation/Marty Seligman association is enough to make me shut the book.

So, that’s that. The Paradox of Choice wasn’t much of a choice for me at all. I could’ve set aside my disdain for the Positive Psychology associations to just see what Mr. Schwartz’s perspective was, but with this particular opening scene, I knew the book wasn’t credible AND it didn’t apply to me. He obviously didn’t have any women read, edit or feedback on that first chapter. He should’ve chosen shopping for electronics instead of something so gender biased as jeans (or clothes in general).

So annoying.

Anyway, Geoff, sorry. I can’t hang with this particular spewage. Maybe the next book can be one of Dan Ariely’s or Daniel Pink’s books, both authors I interviewed for my podcast. Those are actually good, gender-neutral, well-researched and credible works.

Did you read The Paradox of Choice? Let me know what you thought.

______________

Links:

The Junto

P’unk Avenue book club

Dan Pink

Dan Ariely

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Mark Dykeman 18 October 2010, 7:51 am

    Hi Christine. I did read The Paradox of Choice, but I guess I read it with a different set of eyes and biases. I’ll note as well the Jonah Lehrer has also written about decision making in How We Decide, although I haven’t read Lehrer’s book.

    I don’t have a problem with the general thesis of Schwartz’s book, which is that in a number of scenarios, having more choices doesn’t make us happier.

    Leaving aside the example that you read in the book, let me ask you this question: are there ever any scenarios when too many choices and too much flexibility serve to frustrate you rather than make you happy? Or put another way: do layers of questions and decisions ever make you unhappy?

  • Greg Hollingsworth 18 October 2010, 2:21 pm

    I could never get engaged with the material enough to finish the book, just couldn’t connect with the writing.

    I do recall asking myself the same question about his trip to the Gap. I, as a pretty typical thirty-year-old American male, would never shop at the Gap. I buy jeans at Kohl’s, Target, etc… Hell, I go to the mall about once a year.

    That being said, I don’t necessarily disagree with the central thesis, that increased choice doesn’t guarantee happiness. Choice is the enemy of most marketers as it has a tendency to decrease response.

    I have had Predictably Irrational on my reading list for a while now, maybe I’ll try to get to that one next since Mr. Areily has won the coveted Purple Car seal of approval.

    • PurpleCar 19 October 2010, 12:14 pm

      Greg,

      Yes, Predictably Irrational is worth the effort. I don’t like many behavioral
      economics books, and motivational books/positive psychology annoys me to no end.
      Real science, I’d take. The premise of the Positive Psychology movement is
      worthy: study people who are happy and not just people who are miserable. I
      really enjoyed Maslow and his whole hierarchy of needs. Totally made sense. But
      the religious basis of Positive Psychology taints almost all the research
      associated with it. It’s like the Catholic Church coming out with a study that
      says all women who get abortions suffer suicidal tendencies after the procedure.
      Of COURSE they’d say that, and any research coming out of the Church should be
      looked at with extreme suspicion.

      You’ve hit on a great point, about how choice is exactly what marketers DON’T
      want. I am suspicious when “scientists” like Schwartz rally against more
      fractured markets. After all, isn’t competition what makes the capitalist system
      work? The whole “less is more” campaigns seem to have socialist foundations.
      That sounds like a statement more made by a crazy Libertarian conspiracy
      theorist than by me, a pro-social-programs, pro-labor dem. I do believe in
      democracy, and choice is a part of it. Boo-hoo to those who whine and can’t grok
      the cereal aisle in the grocery store. Don’t take away my choices just because
      you’re a bit mentally retarded.

      -Christine

      Peace!
      -PurpleCar Christine Cavalier
      http://www.purplecar.net/

      • geoffd 20 October 2010, 3:15 pm

        My reading of the book is that choice is necessary and good. Having choices is not a problem at all.

        The issue relates to how we deal with having choices.

        • PurpleCar 20 October 2010, 4:33 pm

          That’s a worthy pursuit, then. Too bad I couldn’t get past the first few pages.
          I’m familiar with a lot of the decision-making advice from other books and
          research.

          To be honest, if I were more invested in the book club, I’d make more of an
          effort to finish. I’m in a local book club and I definitely have trudged through
          books I’ve disliked because the social investment is worth it to me. I love
          P’unk Ave and I love your perspective Geoff, but I still see this book club as
          an on-line thing. Funny how the invitation to a real-life meeting influences my
          reading choices…

          That being said, if I were a person who felt anxious about making choices in
          this market, then I may get something out of any book that offers a different
          approach than paralysis. I wonder if this type of anxiety is more prevalent in
          men than in women. It’s anecdotal that men have more buyer’s remorse and tend to
          drag feet on big decisions like wife-choosing and house-buying, but I wonder if
          Schwartz cites and (real) research about this. Also, I’ve spoken with many, many
          an immigrant, and the themes are constant. They all have to learn how to deal
          with “too much” choice when they first start living here. My Chinese friend said
          that he’d always get such a twisted stomach when he needed to buy something. My
          Argentine friend asked me to take her and her visiting friends to the grocery
          store. They wandered for hours marveling at the amount of choices for each
          product. The cereal aisle took a long time.

          So I suppose we are all immigrants to some kind of buying, and will need to
          resolve this problem of choice at some point. I personally take the approach of
          buying electronics mostly on convenience and price, with quality coming second.
          Because of this, I avoid having any conversations with gear heads about my
          purchases. With food, it’s the opposite. We go out of our way to buy quality
          food and we spend a lot. (Then again, I don’t speak about those choices much
          either… perhaps this is the aftermath of having too much choice, that
          conversations about our own purchases are quelled, silenced in fear of setting
          off the passions of the unlike-minded).

          -Christine

  • geoffd 18 October 2010, 3:35 pm

    Interesting that you mention Dan Ariely. I have a read bits of his books and was planning on starting Predictably Irrational today.I started Paradox of Choice several years ago and put it down after about 100 pages. I recently decided to give it another chance, and while it is not perfect I enjoyed it. I think many people miss one of the main points that I take away from the book. It is not a problem with having many options and choices in the world. I would say he even acknowledges that more and more options open up to more and more of us all the time. On the side of those giving us options, I see that as a good thing. For instance, I decide that there is no shoe that solves my problem so I design, manufacture and sell this new shoe. That is a good thing for me. I actualize my idea and take control of a problem.The problem on the consumer or “picker” side of the equation is that I could run myself ragged trying to find that perfect shoe. In this world of great choice, we assume that it is possible to find that perfect shoe and so we keep searching. If it takes great effort to find that shoe or if we end up settling on a shoe that we don’t consider perfect, we end up not enjoying the shoes as much as we would have if we felt like we are picking between a few reasonable and good options.His basic premise is to accept that there will be many choices. By itself choice is not bad. But instead of trying to find the perfect thing with each choice, you should set reasonable (even high) standards and then learn to select those things that meet those standards. As part of that, don’t let regret get in the way of enjoying the decision by wondering if there was something other thing out there that was slightly better than the thing you decided to do/buy (even though it met your high standards).As an artist, I have always embraced constraints and this idea resonates with me.Obviously there is a book of build up and support to the idea, but I wanted to set the record straight. It is not that having choice is bad. It is how you deal with having choice.

    ____

    Oh, and I had just read A Whole New Mind by Pink before reading Paradox of Choice. Also thought provoking.

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