Mind Matters — The Paradox of Choice

Once upon a time I lived in a little story book stone house in the Western Pennsylvania countryside. I would walk down the windy driveway to the big mail box with a little bit of mail. An L.L. Bean or Burpee Seed catalog would arrive with some bills, maybe a letter. (What are they?)

Now? Now I live in Eastern Pennsylvania in another stone house with a big mail box—which is bursting with catalogs, flyers, and ads, ad nauseum. Nary a letter.

The other change in the past twenty-five years? The boom of big box business to hold all the consumer items made in China. The abundance of choice in catalogs and consumer goods should make us happy, right?

Well, no, not really. Psychologist Barry Schwarz has researched, written, and spoken extensively on the paradox of choice. According to Dr. Schwarz, giving people too many choices can lessen their satisfaction. We can actually get overwhelmed with a cacophony of choices. Ever walk down the aisles of a grocery store and have your eyes glaze over in, let’s say, the cereal section? Or any section, for that matter.

I remember when my children were little. I would give them choices of what to wear. In other words, “Would you like to wear this—or that?” Some choice, but not too much. Perhaps as adults we are not much different.

Dr. Schwarz observes that there may be two types of choosers. Maximizers are those who search all the options to make the “best” choice, only to be left with nagging doubts. Satisficers spend a lot less time making their choices, having more free time to enjoy, and are happily satisfied with “good enough.”

Wherever we are on the continuum of Maximizers and Satisficers, we all face the existential question of choice beyond the cereal boxes or the TV’s or whatever consumer item it might be. If choice is about “having,” it won’t make us happy. We are what we “be” not what we “have.”