Flicking through the TV channels one evening one found that what was supposed to be a time of relaxation was actually quite tiring. Surely with more choice and freedom to chose what to watch I would be a lot more content. In the age of the Internet, smartphones etc there is a paradoxical effect in that we have access to an endless amount of movies, TV programmess, documentaries, sport etc.
My mind went back to Barry Schwartz’s TED talk “The Paradox of Choice” and what he calls the “official dogma of all western industrial societies” – see below. This is the common belief that by maximising one’s choice, we are maximising their freedom, and therefore their welfare. A clear intuitive example is a medical doctor offering a patient certain treatment options. The patient has choice, but he/she would most likely lack the knowledge and physical state of mind to make the best decision. Obviously, it should be better if the doctor, with all their experience and knowledge, makes the decision, even though it restricts the patient’s choice.
However freedom can do more harm than good in that it paradoxically causes paralysis in decision-making. When people have a lot of freedom, they have to spend time and effort considering the many options and making a decision. Should I watch rugby, cricket, league or ESPNFC on Sky? What about PBS News, CNN or Discovery? Some will say just record the programmes you didn’t watch but what you end up doing is filling your disk so that you can’t record anything else. These rather futile, yet difficult decisions make us indecisive, slow, and permanently pre-occupied in our lives, all thanks to the “problem” of having a bit too much freedom. Growing up in Ireland we had access to BBC1 Match of the Day (two games of highlights from English Football Division 1 – Premier League now) and it was something that you really looked forward to – 10pm on a Saturday night. Here there is limited choice and because of this maybe more satisfaction in that I didn’t have to worry about who or what to watch. In fact the pleasures of anticipation of Match of the Day on Saturday built throughout the week and provided more happiness – research shows that waiting for something – a chocolate – makes it taste better when we get it.
However, there are some more subtle cognitive effects that come with more freedom. First, it is very easy to imagine that there was a better choice than the one that you had chosen – i.e. the opportunity cost can take away your happiness from your current decision. This causes us to regret our own decisions (even if the option we took was the best choice), and this can seriously damage how satisfied we are with something. And with more freedom, comes more capacity to imagine that the grass is greener on the other side.
Finally, in this “choice-full” world of today, people are bound to choose an option that is almost perfect. Schwartz talks about how there only used to be one kind of jeans that you could buy, compared to the many different colours, fabric, fit, and size that you can buy today. He claims that by being able to buy such near-perfect jeans, you have such high expectations for the next pair that you can’t be completely satisfied. He jokes: “the secret to happiness is low expectations.”
Maximizers and Satisficers
With so much choice today we tend to fall into two categories of consumers.
Maximizers are those people that spend all their time exhaustively search for every piece of information about a product in order to make what they believe to be the perfect choice. However it can lead to nagging doubts about their choice and they can become unhappy.
Satisficers are those people that settle with the decision that is good enough and seem to be happier with their decision.