The Paradox of Choice

The latest lecture as part of the Vanguard programme came from Professor Barry Schwartz and was on the paradox of choice. Essentially he said that, although governments and others tell us that choice is good for us and is a sign of freedom and democracy, when we are given a wide choice we either end up paralysed and unable to choose or we choose and are dissatisfied with our choices. We also discussed this in our telephone discussion group this evening.

Some of the examples are of those being offered an almost unlimited choice of retirement pension schemes then choosing the least advantageous option because it was the easiest understood. I remember Matt Weston referring to this in an early Business Bricks (www.businessbricks.co.uk). He mentioned buying a tennis racquet where the shop asked for details of the person who would use it – height, style, etc. He was then offered three racquets to choose from and made his choice quickly. Had he been offered the full range (more than 100, if I remember correctly) he would have been confused. Had he been offered one only, he would have wondered if the salesman was on special commission for selling that brand and was he getting the right racquet for the person’s needs. Three seemed to be the magic number.

The lecture (and our discussion) also referred to maximising vs satsficing. I remember studing SE Finer and others on this topic in the late 70’s. Essentially Professor Schwartz said that often “good enough is good enough.” I think I go with that. The obsession with perfection seems to me to be chasing the impossible and not worth the effort. This is not an argument for shoddy or half-hearted service. But if it’s good enough, it’s good enough.

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