Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Whatever you do, don't tell me my options (A half-assed review of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz)

Big fat disclaimer: I know Barry. Consider the source. Your mileage may vary.

Given a tough choice between several options, are you most likely to go with your gut and be content with the results (satisfice) or spend the time to discern the optimal selection (maximize)? Go for the best of everything or refuse to let the great be the enemy of the good?

I know Barry from working at Swarthmore College, so I had plenty of opportunities to hear and read things he said on the subject of the book long before I'd gotten around to actually reading it. Despite my personal admiration for him, something in me really bristled at his general thesis: that we pay a psychological toll for having to make choices. I'll admit that I'm pretty stuck on my libertarian principles, liking to rock hard and ride free without constraints from the man. (Or now that I am the man, I'm content to pretend that I could rock hard and ride free if I wanted to.) But beyond my philosophical reaction to the premise of the book, it also didn't jibe with my personal experiences. For the most part, I don't sweat decisions that much, and I don't regret them often either.

Well, duh—apparently I'm a pretty extreme satisficer.

Schwartz makes two important distinctions that I think go a long way toward easing my initial discomfort with his thesis. First is the difference between choice and autonomy. Selecting a flavor of jam from the 36 options in the supermarket is choosing. Picking which College to apply to is choosing. Deciding to eat jam because you like it, or deciding to go to College and do a good job while there is exercising your autonomy. A sense of autonomy, of exercising your free will, is essential to your sense of well-being. (Studies have shown!) The second important distinction is between maximizers and perfectionists. Having high standards and striving to be really good at something is not incompatible with satisficing. A person can be a perfectionist when working diligently to practice their piano playing, but may derive satisfaction from that effort. That's a different matter entirely from believing that its utterly essential to choose the very best piece to perform at your recital, lest your status with the audience should suffer, which could make you miserable.

Jumping to the chase, this is a good book that should be of solid general interest. Even if you end up disagreeing with me on this assessment, it's short and easy to read. It will make a few provocative assertions and site some relevant social science research to back it up. From that point on, it's up to you to decide if you buy the argument or not, but I don't think anybody will be poorer for the experience.

There are a few passages that left me doubtful here and there, but I'm about 85-90% convinced. Being a satisficer, that proved to be good enough to assure me that the argument is generally sound and deserving of the investment of my time. If you are a satisficer, particularly with regard to your selection of reading material, and because you've gotten this far in the review, my endorsement may be enough to convince you to check out the book from the local library or put it on your Amazon wish list. If you're a maximizer, I'm afraid that I'm not interested in writing as thorough, as balanced, and as thoughtful a review as it would take to convince you that this is THE book you should read. After all, I just do half-assed reviews, not whole-assed ones.

But you really should read it, because I'm generally pretty satisfied with most aspects of life. And you, dear maximizer, are apparently not. Worse, you know you're not, and you're comparing yourself to me and other people you know whom you expect are happier than you. Just making that comparison is killing your spirit. Oh boy, you really, really need to read this book, poor thing.


Blogger Megan said...

Snicker, snicker... This is one of the best half-assed reviews I've ever read!

10:38 AM  

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