The Paradox of Choice – Barry Schwartz

Choice is good.

We live in a world of abundance, surrounded by new ideas, innovations, and installations. Almost any product you can think of exists somewhere – usually eBay – able to be bought for the right price and delivered to your door before the money has left your bank account. We’re surrounded by marketing and advertising competing for our attention, our money, and our recommendations, with so much choice that special websites are created just to help us Go Compare the Money Supermarket. Even the Comparison websites are advertising now – where do I find out which of those is the best one?

( as it turns out.)

So is choice good? The Paradox of Choice was the topic of an entertaining online debate between two great thinkers a few years ago, played out on the stage of TED.

On one side you had Malcolm Gladwell, owner of the brilliant job titles ‘Modern-day Philosopher’ and ‘Social Commentator’. Gladwell talks about how in early 1970s USA, there was just one type of spaghetti sauce – Tomato – which everyone had. No one thought any differently, until market research showed that most people didn’t really want plain tomato sauce. Some wanted it lumpy, others with herbs in. People liked it spicy, or sweet, others preferred it with different types of tomatoes, or extra onion. Eventually, 47 different types of spaghetti sauce found their way onto the shelves in New York shops, and Americans rejoiced – everyone could have the spaghetti sauce they wanted, and no one had to put up with boring tomato sauce again.

On the other side of the fence was Barry Schwartz, an American psychologist and professor at Swarthmore College. Schwartz countered that an abundance of choice is a bad thing. Using the example of buying a pair of jeans he talks about how it used to be easy – you go to the shop when your old jeans have worn out, you pick up the same pair and size as before and then you buy them. But now… You have Slim-fit. And Boot-cut. Hipsters, Baggy, Low-slung, Black, Blue, Red (I’m told), Stonewashed, Retro, Denim, Fake denim…

He argues that having this much choice has three effects:

1 – Your decisions require more effort

2 – Mistakes in choice are more likely

3 – The psychological consequences of making a mistake are more severe.

Barry Schwartz also published a book on the topic (ironically there are now many books on Choice) arguing that the more choices we have, the greater the effort that goes into our decision making and therefore the more we expect to enjoy it. He does agree that having an element of choice over our decisions makes people more active, alert, engaged in the experience and more likely to share and discuss with others. However, he ultimately concludes that choice within constraints and freedom within limits is the best solution, allowing the best of both worlds whilst avoiding the polar extremes of one size fits all and comparison hell.

Schwartz’s final piece of advice is worth sharing – companies need to offer choice, but limit the set of possibilities so that the opportunity costs don’t add up to make all the alternatives unattractive. In short, if customers have too many choices, the pleasure from the one they choose will never fully outweigh the disappointment from the ones they didn’t.

We’ve all been sat on the bus home having spent too much on a new shirt or coat, unable to stop thinking about the one we put back on the rail and whether the refund policy covers impulse buying (I once bought five suits in a month and took four of them back – I wasn’t popular in House of Fraser). This plethora of choices will only become more prevalent as the digital world grows, increasing opportunities to buy and expectations of a superb bargain with it.

Everyone will have a view on whether choice is a good thing, but for me it’s having a choice about choice that is good. If you have the time and inclination, you can browse to your heart’s content, finding the perfect product at the perfect price. If you prefer to let someone else do the work, then you can click on Amazon’s next recommendation or the first suggestion of your Google search, taking away the stress and anxiety or choosing, but missing out on the fun and excitement at the same time.

I’ll leave you to make your own mind up as to whether Choice is a good or bad thing, but if it helps you decide then watch a few more TED talks – there are over 1000 to choose from…

I really hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, I’d love you to subscribe to my blog at to get new thoughts sent to you on an infrequent basis, and find me on twitter @johnJsills.


8 Thoughts

  1. At our house we’ve started to talk about the roller coaster of life or the ups and downs as you mentioned. We’ve decided to try more new things and if you have a bad one “hey it’s the roller coaster of life”, if it’s a good one then “woo hoo! It’s the roller coaster of life”. I don’t agree with the downs being worst than the ups. If I find a new product, service or sandwich that I love then life is all the better for it. If it’s a bad sandwich it is soon eaten (never wasted) and a new sandwich is only a meal away.

    I think we got the saying from reading Dave Gorman’s book America Unchained where he tries to cross America without using a chain outlet, be it a fast food restaurant, shop, hotel or petrol (gas) station. You should read it when you’re next in the States…

  2. Paul – glad you were watching it! It works fine on mine and feeds directly from TED, so should be ok?

    John – that’s a superb way to live life, and I suppose choice helps that. As you say, you know that if the sandwich is bad another one isn’t far away. If choice were limited and you could only have one sandwich a week, you’d probably want it to be a good one..

  3. Very interesting blog John. An extra dimension to this is “the review”. I find that in order to purchase something electronic for example, I first have to create a shortlist of things that all do the same thing within the same price range. I then have to review all of the reviews, filtering out the 1 star reviews for “idiots” that forgot to put the batteries in or expected a reception without an arial, and then find the best deal. I will then take the plunge knowing full well that I have no idea if it is the best I could achieve with my budget.

    Barry Schwartz is you are right. That is stressful. Add the extra meta data available nowadays and that is even more of a headache!

  4. very interesting take on choice! I was discussing this with students on the different contexts wihin which choices are made irrescpective of the marginal unitility story. Given this different contexts choice is not only difficult but it characterised by various decision rules in each contexts. hence, for a business, what is important is in having an idea about which rules are bieng applied by your target market in any context. This helps in marketing (research questionnares), advertising, product distribution etc.

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