The Paradox of Choice Book Review

Barry Schwartz has written a book called “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less“.

I’ve read several books on consumer behavior, and also worked on sites for several top retailers while I was at Resource. I was interested to see how Schwartz would explore “the tyranny of choice”.

Schwartz states his goals early on in the prologue:

  1. We would be better off if we embraced certain voluntary constraints on our freedom of choice, instead of rebelling against them.
  2. We would be better off seeking what was “good enough” instead of seeking the best (have you ever heard a parent say, “I only want the ‘good enough’ for my kids”?
  3. We would be better off if we lowered our expectations about the results of decisions.
  4. We would be better off if the decisions we made were nonreversible.
  5. We would be better off if we paid less attention to what others around us were doing.

paradox of choiceEven before delving into the book, these five points caused me to pause (and not just over the use of the word “nonreversible” rather than the more typical “irreversible” – although that was part of it). The ideas of being content with ‘good enough’ and lowering expectations are ones I could stand to take to heart. Paying less attention to what others are doing reminded me of the Wisdom of the Crowds, where people unconsciously modified their behaviour based on their assumptions about others. I was eager to learn more about what Schwartz had to say about these points.

The argument that too many choices confuses and overwhelms is one I’ve heard before. As Schwartz states: with choice comes personal responsibility. The electoral system is based on the idea that we select someone to represent us, someone who will be informed on decisions and their impacts. We do this recognizing that we cannot all devote that time and effort to the endeavour. Yet in many other cases, we lay this responsibility on the public, under the guise of it being “freedom of choice” and therefore somehow always a desired thing.

The book had a very academic feel to it, and although the premise was interesting, I found that I could only read it in small doses. The book was organized into four sections: ‘When We Choose’, ‘How We Choose’, ‘Why We Suffer’ and ‘What We Can Do’. In the third section it was easy to see the applicability to business (how offering more than a single item for sale affected individuals’ tendancies to purchase, and not always in the same manner), but most of the book read more as an intellectuals’ self-help tome. I specifically refer to intellectuals, because while the necessary change was discussed, there were no practical advice on how best to make changes for the better.

While the “Paradox of Choice” had a few interesting facts in it, it was by no means a ground-breaking book. Although perhaps I come to that conclusion by virtue of my expectations and the wealth of other books out there… thereby proving the premise!

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