The Paradox of Choice: Consumer Lessons for the Holiday Season

by Brian on December 22, 2006

in In the News,Only in Israel

In his fascinating and compelling book “The Paradox of Choice,” Barry Schwartz describes the process of buying a pair of jeans. At his local Gap, he tells a saleswoman that his size is 32 waist, 28 length.

“Do you want them slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy or extra baggy,” the saleswoman replies, then continues: “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?”

The stunned author stammers in reply “I just want regular jeans. You know the kind that used to be the only kind.”

Over the next 250 pages, Schwartz describes in great detail how the staggering amount of choice we have in the modern world – from consumer goods to lifestyle decisions – has not, as one might think, increased our propensity towards living a happier and more satisfied life. Rather, it’s making us nuts, Schwartz claims.

Schwartz’s solution: that we voluntarily embrace certain constraints on our freedom of choice, lower our expectations, and settle for “good enough” instead of the “absolute best” in order to live a more balanced and tranquil existence.

I’ve got another approach: try moving to Israel and living the life of an immigrant.

The Paradox of Choice is an eye-opener. Schwartz visits his neighborhood supermarket (not a mega-market, he insists) and starts taking notes.

On the shelves he finds 85 varieties of crackers, 285 types of cookies (21 options among chocolate chip cookies alone), 85 brands of flavored juices, 95 choices from the chips aisle, 75 instant gravies, 120 different pasta sauces, 275 varieties of cereal (including 7 “Cheerios options), 175 different salad dressings and 175 types of tea bags. Oh, and for sport, he finds 22 different types of frozen waffles alone.

In the pharmaceutical section, he unearths 61 varieties of suntan lotion, 80 different pain relievers, 40 options for toothpaste, and 116 types of skin cream. He continues on to shop for gadgets (VCRs and DVD players), entertainment (channels on cable) and knowledge (university courses and schools). He looks at the vast array of options among health care providers, retirement plans, work options and even how to pray.

All of this choice is overwhelming and increases the pressure to make the “best” or “right” decision. As a result, we are never truly happy with the abundance of options we have. It turns out, Schwartz, asserts, we were happier when we had only a few choices. Not no choice, but fewer.

This stems in part from the fact that there are two main types of decision-making personalities – “maximizers” who study every option carefully before going in one direction or the other – and “satisficers,” the type who’ll look at a few sweaters from a single store before buying the best one available there, but not necessarily the most perfect sweater for purchase in the entire mall.

I fit clearly into the maximizer category. Visiting a Fry’s electronics store or CompUSA may start out as an adventure in consumer choice but it quickly turns to an oblique form of hi-tech torture. Faced with 25 different hard drives, I have been known to walk out with none at all, telling myself I must do “further research” at home on the Internet.

Similarly, planning a vacation has ceased being a joy as the prospect of making some small but critical error that will provide the family with anything less than a full peak experience is too much to bear.

Schwartz provides plenty of anecdotes and research studies to back up his main thesis. He discusses frames and anchoring (you’ll feel better getting a $5.00 item if it’s seen as a discount from $6.00), adaptation (what seems like a big deal today will fade in importance over time – for both positive and negative experiences), how every choice includes a hidden “opportunity cost,” and the link between helplessness and inertia (rats given a shock no matter what they do choose to do…nothing).

Since we can’t stop manufacturers from manufacturing more goods, Schwartz suggests that we consciously limit our options and act in most ways as satisficers rather than the maximizers many of us have become in a modern world brimming with too many coffee filters and aluminum foil brands to choose from.

Moving to Israel, though not a cure for the choice dilemma as a whole, can in its own small way help. While Israel has certainly been actively consumerizing in recent years, we are still in many ways closer to the choice levels of, say, the mid-1980s than the buying frenzy that 2006 in North America represents.

So, while we may have 50 varieties of cookies in the supermarket, that’s still less than the 285 Schwartz cites. And in some cases, products are simply not available. Ziploc-style bags only came on the market in the last two years and there’s only one (off) brand. Rice milk, a commodity I’ve written about on this blog before, cannot be found in most supermarkets and often requires a trip to the natural foods grocer.

There are no Macy’s Bloomingdale’s, JC Penney’s or Sears at which to spend the day power shopping. Israel’s HaMashbir department store is getting better but the shelves are still bare by comparison. Clothing chain Fox may be dandy but it’s no Banana Republic or Urban Outfitters.

For immigrants to Israel, the language barrier that so often makes us feel like outsiders also has the surprising result of insulating us from the effects of advertising. We hear the commercials on the radio, but we don’t absorb the full impact.

Once, I asked one of my kids to translate a particularly boisterous ad that turned out to be hyping a plastic surgery clinic in graphic terms. I was happier when I didn’t know what they were talking about. The same is true with print and television advertising. It doesn’t hurt that we only have two commercial television stations and the main rock and roll radio is non-commercial.

Immigrants without a strong command of the language also have less choice when it comes to entertainment: theater, lectures and stand-up comedy are mostly in Hebrew. Hebrew-language movies only have English subtitles when they’re shown at film festivals abroad.

These are not necessarily bad things: I remember last summer while visiting the U.S. I had the opportunity to peruse a local entertainment magazine. The sheer number of concerts and performances presented in its pages were so overwhelming, I made the only logical choice: we opted for none.

Religion puts further constraints on free choice. You can’t eat everything you’d like; there are conventions and restrictions in dress code; on Shabbat certain activities are forbidden. While to some these might be seen as unnatural limitations in personal expression and autonomy, Schwartz claims in his book that those involved in religious frameworks are generally more satisfied with the more limited choices that are on the table. His point again is clear: one should find ways to reduce choice, whether voluntarily or otherwise.

Perhaps the biggest difference on the consumer side – one that is especially apparent at this time of year – is that there is no gala “holiday shopping season” in Israel. Chanukah in the Holy Land isn’t even in the same league. Sure, there are specials and deals, but the pressure on a maximizer to make a large number of critically important choices in a stress-filled and compacted period of time is significantly lessened.

Does that mean that Israelis suffer less than their North American counterparts from the dreaded December depression? Is that a compelling enough reason to move here?

That’s one more paradox of choice left to ponder.

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The podcast version of this article is available here.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anonymous December 26, 2006 at 12:24 pm

Without actually reading Schwartz's book, it's a little hard to argue with his lines of reasoning, but from your post I find a couple of points incongruous:
On the free choice issue, you said he defines “maximizers” and “satisficers”. It seems that to begin with, his argument about how a great deal of choice has bad effects would only apply to the maximizers. The “satisficers” seem to really be the ones who are adapted to this new situation of large choice and so aren't especially bothered by it.
Also, in advocating religion as somehow voluntarily limiting choice, it's a rather narrow-eyed view of it. Would education to a more critical view on consumer culture attain the same goals? And religion isn't necessarily more relaxed as a lifestyle than the secular “multiple-choice” one – in some aspects, certainly among more adherent observers, it can be incredibly stressful.

2 Anonymous December 26, 2006 at 8:53 pm

Though I used to wonder how my rich cousin with normal-sized feet ever made choices between styles and colors when purchasing shoes, having not been limited by availabity and cost as I was, I still would have preferred to have had more choices available to me.

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