A Misguided Attack on Choice


In both, his book on the subject, The Tyranny of Choice (New York: ECCO, 2004), and his January 22, 2004, Op Ed piece for The New York Times, "A Nation of Second Guesses," Professor of psychology Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College disparages the belief that human beings are better off in life when they have a greater selection of what they might choose from than when such a selection is severely limited. As he puts the point, 'there is growing evidence that the emotional logic (the psycho-logic) is deeply flawed. Indeed, for many people, increased choice can lead to a decrease in satisfaction. Too many options can result in paralysis, not liberation.'

To support this view Professor Schwartz cites several studies in which it is supposed to be demonstrated that people do not like to face choices. For example, two psychologists from Columbia and Stanford, conclude that 'as the number of flavors of jam or varieties of chocolate available to shoppers is increased, the likelihood that they will leave the store without buying either jam or chocolate goes up.' In another piece of research by these two scientists and Schwartz himself it was 'found that as the number of job possibilities available to college graduates goes up, applicants' satisfaction with the job search process goes down.' Finally, Professor Schwartz cites a study that shows that 'as the number of mutual funds in a 401(k) plan offered to employees goes up, the likelihood that they will choose a fund ' any fund ' goes down.'

I do not want to dispute these findings but point out that they are largely beside the point when the issue of wide range of selections comes into focus. But first, there is the problem, also, that it doesn't much matter that many folks are frustrated by too many selections of ice cream or pharmaceuticals or whatever. Nothing at all follows from this. Indeed, the point of having a wide selection is not to provide various individuals with many alternatives'-most individuals know pretty well the small selection of alternatives they want and can go right to where that small selection can be found. When they shop, for example, they do not go everywhere goods are on display at a grocery or department store but merely visit the small region where their preferred selections are available. The point of having a very large selection overall is to make it possible for all varieties of individuals to find something they would need or want. It is all about individualism, the rejection of the ancient doctrine of one size fits all, not about pleasing everyone with all the selections that are produced. Why, then, all the fuss about the fairly obvious fact that individuals may find it difficult, even frustrating, to navigate the wide array of selections in the marketplace? Some will solve this problem by finding boutiques or ma and pa grocery stores in which to do their shopping.

Others will just put up with a bit of frustration. College students will just have to face the fact that their frustration is due to others' needs for their own job opportunities. Or are we to take it that some people should step in--or appoint someone to do this--and limit selections for us all? If, say, a new restaurant is about to open in town--will some people forbid this so as to save those frustrated folks the trouble of having to cope with the wide array of choices? Or if someone writes yet another love song or makes yet another movie, is there to be some vice squad on hand to ban the new stuff to spare us the trouble of making a choice from among the enlarged set of offerings? Are Professor Schwartz and his colleagues going to make the decision that certain of those new songs or movies will not be made? By what right?

My suspicion is that Professor Schwartz's misdirected critique of the widening range of selections in various realms of human interests rests, first, on a mistake about the point of it all--namely, to accommodate millions of quite different individuals set to realize their own objectives. And second, it aims to promote the idea that we need some kind of state regulation of such selections, a paternalistic intrusion, so as to protect us from having to make difficult choices. Neither is, by any stretch of the imagination, a compelling reason to limit choice.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.