More is Not Necessarily Better

supermarket shelves

My colleagues in the sustainable consumption network sent me the abstract below of a recent academic article about choice. It provides further evidence of what academic psychologist Barry Schwartz has been saying for quite some time. I've added a TED video of his to the end of this post. Schwartz's argument is simple, but elegant. The idea of freedom as proportional to the number of available choices stops working when that number gets large. At some point more choice become pathologic, and the actor, rather than being able to enjoy more freedom, comes under what Schwartz calls the tyranny of choice.

Try to feel free when you are faced with hundreds of possibilities while you stand in front of the yogurt display case in your nearest supermarket. I get frozen in place. In spite of this all too common experience, Schwartz has been sometimes criticized for failing to provide sound data to back up his claims. But here is some recent evidence.

A group of European academic researchers just published an article entitled, "TV Channels, Self-Control and Happiness." Here's their abstract:

Standard economic theory suggests that more choice is usually better. We address this claim and investigate whether people can cope with the increasing number of television programs and watch the amount of TV they find optimal for themselves or whether they are prone to over- consumption. We find that heavy TV viewers do not benefit but instead report lower life satisfaction with access to more TV channels. This finding suggests that an identifiable group of individuals experiences a self-control problem when it comes to TV viewing.

Using choice of TV channels instead of yogurt, the team found the same result. I was surprised not to find Schwartz's work cited in the paper, but it stands on its own. The empirical work was well-conceived and executed. Many things in life appear to be boundless, but show diminishing or perverse outcomes as the scale or number keeps growing. Choice, the most fundamental libertarian metric, seems to fall into this class. After some point, more is not better for the chooser or for the planet that must supply the resources and accept the waste encumbered by these choices. In most cases, the planet suffers long before the tyranny of choice kicks in.

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David M. Carter said:

Schwartz was a prof in my applied positive psychology program at Penn. We had some great discussions about the "Paradox of Choice" and related subjects. Schwartz's book has been out for some time now, and the scientific support at the time was strong but limited. Since then, numerous studies have been published (mostly within the realm of consumer behavior in business schools) to support Schwartz's hypotheses.

One particularly interesting study addressed more than just the level of choice. It is also demonstrated that people's gut feel about consumer choices far outweigh careful consideration when it comes to well-being effects. Consistent with Schwartz's original hypothesis, high levels of cognitive analysis resulted in dissatisfaction about choices, and couterintuitively increased the uncertainly about making the correct choice (i.e. maximizing). This is why economic models, such as cost/benefit analysis, do not work well for human well-being considerations.

Of particular interest to me is that these findings show how our natural capacity for adaptation (we quickly adapt in a positive way to choices we make from the gut) can benefit us, while at the same time, showing that a prescribed, mechanized decision-making process is self-defeating. This jibes with what we know about evolutionary adaptation and resilience. If only we can "re-learn" how to trust our natural instincts we will be better off as a species and planet.