Saturday, March 24, 2007

Less of This Book Is More

Title: The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less
Author: Barry Schwartz

Being a 20-something in today’s world can be hard. I often hear the same complaint from my friends – life is too vague and confusing. We don’t know what jobs we want, whom we want to date, or what rules we’re supposed to be following. After the structured environments of high school and college, the freewheeling style of the “real world” can be downright frightening. In short, the choices we’re faced with – in conjunction with the expectation that the perfect life awaits us somewhere out there – is overwhelming. Sometimes it’s even paralyzing.

At least, I feel that way sometimes, which is part of the reason I picked up a copy Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less: How The Culture of Abundance Robs Us of Satisfaction.

Schwartz’s general thesis is that while having no choice at all in life is unbearable, a surfeit of choice can be equally agonizing. In the first part of his book he outlines how the number of everyday choices has mushroomed in recent years. There are more jeans to choose from, more restaurants and more books. There are more financial, medical, and legal decisions needing to be made. And this, Schwartz argues, makes us unhappy.

Reading that made me feel good. That’s why this whole living-as-an-adult thing is so damn hard, I thought with satisfaction. It’s not my fault if I feel lost at times. It’s the evil curse of the culture of abundance. That’s the boogeyman making me unhappy.

But that’s only the Part I of the book. Parts II and III deal with the psychological processes of choice, and why choices often make us suffer. Schwartz analyzes doubt, indecision, regret, disappointment, and depression as related to the process of decision-making. It reads rather how I remember my old Psychology 101 book reading, and wasn’t very interesting. (Although, Kat, you would probably enjoy it.) My eyes often glazed over. Will I be more or less happy, I wondered, if I made the choice to drop this book down the sink disposal?

But I didn’t, and I’m glad I continued. Because Part IV tells us what we can do to protect ourselves from the evil of choice. And this is where I got scared.

Schwartz proposes an 11-step plan we can utilize to mitigate the stress of making decisions. I won’t delineate all the steps, because they wouldn’t make sense if you haven’t read the book. But Step 11 was probably the most troubling of all: “Learn to Love Constraints.”

This is where Schwartz and I irrevocably parted ways. Because despite the stress and unhappiness that an overabundance of choice can sometimes inflict upon us, I’d rather labor under that burden than have my choices removed. Oh, I may bitch and moan about having to decide what health insurance I want, but after the final analysis, I do want those options – even though they sometimes suck.

[Of course, there’s always the argument that the choice of health insurance isn’t really a true choice at all, but merely a deliberate manner of confusing the consumer, thus making us responsible for crappy decisions we never truly understood to begin with. But this is rather different, I find, than the mere problem of choice, and something I really don’t have the energy – or interest – to analyze at the moment.]

Schwartz ends his book with a cartoon in which a parent fish and a baby fish both live together in a fishbowl. The parent fish says to the baby fish, “You can be anything you want to be – no limits.” The following is how Schwartz analyzes this fishy scenario:

“You can be anything you want to be – no limits,” says the myopic parent fish to its offspring, not realizing how limited an existence the fishbowl allows. But is the parent really myopic? Living in the constrained, protective world of the fishbowl enables this young fish to experiment, to explore, to create, to write its life story without worrying about starving or being eaten. Without the fishbowl, there truly would be no limits. But the fish would have to spend all its time just struggling to stay alive. Choice within constraints, freedom within limits, is what enables the little fish to imagine a host of marvelous possibilities.”

Is it just me, or is that language rather frighteningly Orwellian? Reading it, an image popped unwillingly into my head. Two rebel fighters are camped out in a mountain cave. One is a grizzled old veteran of the battle, and the other is a fresh young recruit, who until just recently had been living with her family in the valley below, where everyone is happy and the same. There are no choices anymore, and so no unhappiness. The veteran is telling the recruit of how their world fell this way. He remembers how it used to be, in the days before the revolution. Squinting into the fire and poking it with a stick, he rumbles, “None of us saw the threat until it was too late. We didn’t realize the monster we were facing. But you see, it all began very simply: with a book… A book about the evil of choice. And from then, there was no looking back.”

That’s an overly imaginative, “slippery slope” exaggeration, to be sure, but it’s still the reason I ultimately felt rather uncomfortable with Schwartz’s arguments. If we start giving up choices, where do we stop? Perhaps before we know it, we’re all ticking along to the rhythm of the giant brain pulsing in the center of the city, happy mindless citizens of Camazotz – which makes me think that I can deal with a little stress from choice every now and then.

Still, The Paradoc of Choice was an interesting read, and can be something impressive to talk about during parties (blah blah blah...paradox of choice...blah blah blah blah). I disagree with Schwartz on some things, but I’m still glad I read it.


posted by Elizabeth at 7:17 PM


Blogger Kat said...

I've heard it's a very interesting book. I think my coworker read it. It's rather popular in the library world because students have an overwhelming amount of resources to choose from. They solve that problem by picking the first thing Google gives them, of course. :)

Also, reading about your 20-something laments made me think of a book I read about 2 years ago called The Quarterlife Crisis. It was an interesting read (although I don't remember all that much anymore) and made me feel much better about my indecision at the time (post-grad school, real job hunting, and waitressing).

I think the problem with choice particularly comes into play in the consumer world. Do I really need to have 50 million digital cameras/mp3 players/headphones/cell phone plans/etc to choose from when nearly all do the same thing with a few minor variations? There's this pressure to pick the absolute best choice when really there's just no hope for it. Spend a little time doing the research, buy something, and move on! :)

4/05/2007 8:02 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I bought the sequel to The Quarterlife Crisis -- Conquering Your Quarterlife Crisis -- way back in December. I still can't bring myself to read it. The problem arose when I learned that the author herself had just a short while ago been in the throes of her own quarterlife crisis. Instead of making me feel better, that made me feel much, much worse. Now I felt the pressure to write a book or accomplish something similarly astounding! So then I got all sullen and resentful towards her, and haven't been able to look at the book since. She's so damn accomplished it makes me sick. The only other book that's ever made me feel so inadequate that I couldn't even open it was Scott Turow's One L. I'll only know that I've truly exorcised all my law school demons on the day I actually manage to read that book. The same probably holds true for my quarterlife crisis.

I don't mind an overabundance of choice in the consumer world, mostly because I pick something once and then always buy the same thing. Guess I just don't care all that much. But I do get resentful when it comes to things like picking car insurance or investment strategies (or I will when I actually have money to invest!) Worst of all is when I have to buy a plane ticket. Which airline, I ponder, carries with it the least risk of FLAMING DEATH?! It's agonizing. I hate flying.

4/06/2007 4:10 PM  

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