Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Paradox of Choice

I recently stumbled across an absolutely fascinating lecture by Barry Schwartz author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. The lecture was a "Google TechTalk" although it has very little to do with Google or technology. Google is in the habit of having people come give interesting lectures all the time. But I digress.

To my knowledge the author is not a believer and the lecture is not directly related to anything spiritual. However, I think the implications of the lecture have everything to do with our discipleship, and that is why I found it so incredibly fascinating.

As the title indicates, the lecture is about the nature of choice. My synopsis is as follows: without the judicious application of spiritual wisdom, choice will tend to enslave rather than free.

This is a huge topic with lots of practical application for our lives, especially in our post-modern generation. However, before I get into any of that I will provide an outline of Barry's lecture.

  1. "The Official Syllogism" - a deeply rooted, unquestioned assumption shared by most Americans:

    1. The more freedom people have the more welfare they have.

    2. The more choice people have the more freedom people have (freedom and choice are synonymous).

    3. Therefore the more choice people have the more welfare they have.

  2. Under this assumption, choice has exploded in the American consumer marketplace.

    1. In the U.S., there was a three-fold increase in brands on grocery store shelves in the 1990's

    2. The average grocery store has 30,000 unique products (i.e. "SKUs").

    3. We not only have more options in areas where we've always had options (e.g. cereal), we now have significant options where there used to be none at all (e.g. medical treatments, plastic surgery, etc.). Subtle implications:

      1. If we are ugly it is our fault because we have the ability to change anything about our physical appearance.

      2. Many people are more connected to work (via cell-phones and black-berries, etc.) so people must continually deliberate about doing work even if they aren't working.

      3. Pensions and 401Ks are considerably more complex.

      4. University students get a large "catalog" of classes.

  3. Family choices:

    1. Who to marry

    2. We now have many more options (who, when, how, etc.)

  4. Identity:

    1. We are encouraged to reinvent ourselves

  5. Is this good news or bad news? Yes! Choice and freedom are good. However, too many choices can lead to:

    1. Paralysis - there are so many options you choose none (lots of great examples in the lecture)

      1. Exceptions:

        1. When you decide exactly what you want before being faced with the choice.

        2. If the options are explicitly and directly comparable (e.g. 5 piece chicken McNugget Extra Value Meal vs. 10 piece chicken McNugget Extra Value Meal).

    2. Reduced decision quality - there are so many options you over-simplify the decision criteria (e.g. dating someone just because they are "hot").

    3. Reduced satisfaction - if one overcomes paralysis and makes a good decision they will still feel worse than if they have fewer choices. Axiom: as capability increases usability decreases.

      1. Why to lots of choices make people miserable?

        1. Regret - any choice that isn't "perfect" it is easy to imagine another which would have been better. The more alternatives exists the easier it is to imagine a better one.

        2. Anticipated regret - you are so sure you will regret your decision you simply don't make the choice (much like paralysis). "The specter of regrets makes even unimportant decisions loom large."

        3. Opportunity costs - the more options exist the more often you will identify attractive features which you must reject (e.g. a car with a smooth ride but poor gas mileage vs. a car with a rough ride and good gas mileage - both would be nice, but one feature must be rejected).

        4. Escalation of expectations - in the face of many choices our expectation of how good our selection will be increases.

          1. "It's worth knowing that in case you have a choice between 'x' and making more money, you should almost certainly choose 'x.'"

        5. Self-blame - it's my fault I made the wrong choice

          1. "Self-blame, I think, is a critical component of why we are experiencing an epidemic of clinical depression in the United States at a time when we've never been richer or had more freedom of choice, people seem to be getting sadder and sadder."

  6. Everything is made worse for the person who is out to get the "best" (as opposed to "good enough").

  7. The "Monotonicity" Principle - The idea that if two options are better than one then three is better than two, etc. People have assumed this principle for a long time, but it is false. At some point more choice becomes worse than less choice.

  8. The "Leakage" Principle - The idea that the context in which a decision is made will continue to exert influence even as you experience the decision's consequences (e.g. if you agonize about your choice of college you will continue to suffer while you attend classes at the college you chose).

  9. The "Principal-Agent Problem" - When we (as principals) hire agents to help us, we take the decision burden off ourselves and are therefore freed to enjoy our agent's decisions more-so than our own (e.g. it's easier to enjoy a house that our expert real-estate agent finds than one we find ourselves).

  10. "Libertarian Paternalism" - organize options so that if people do nothing they will get what is almost certainly in their interest (e.g. since participation in a 401k is almost always a good idea make it so that people must opt-out rather than opt-in).

A few observations before I open it up for discussion:

  • Barry isn't telling us anything a good student of Scripture didn't already know. However, his insights are valuable because they deepen our understanding of human psychology in relation to the truth of Scripture. It's almost always helpful to know why we act the way we act as precisely as possible.

  • It doesn't take much to see that Barry is articulating a real problem which is afflicting our generation in particular.

  • Realizing that this is a problem and talking about it is helpful. Suffering in ignorance and silence can be deadly.

  • These insights may help explain why so many people agonize to find God's "perfect will" for their lives (which by the way is not a Biblical concept - I may post on this later).

  • Wisdom is particularly important in dealing with choice. Spiritual wisdom must intersect with the choices in our lives if we are to have any hope of effective discipleship. What decisions are actually worth deliberating? How much deliberation is necessary? Only those with "ears to hear" (as Jesus put it) will know. If we don't hear Jesus then we will likely be consistently mired in a swamp of choice.

I would love to hear your feedback.