Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Tyranny of Choice

No, the title is not original and there is a good reason for this – choices have long been a source of concern for many people. And in recent years, choices have grown at a rapid rate. The question posed by Barry Schwartz, author of the book The Paradox of Choice, is whether all this choice has improved the welfare of society. Or, as he suggests, has the dazzling array of choices put as all at a disadvantage. How does this paradox occur?

First imagine choosing an ice-cream flavour. First you go to a store with only chocolate and vanilla. You weigh up the benefits of each flavour against the other, and make a choice. If you choose chocolate, vanilla is what economists term the opportunity cost. It is the forgone alternative for making a decision. Every time we make a choice, not only are we choosing one alternative, we are choosing to forgo another.

No let’s consider an ice-cream store with 30 flavours. To make a decision here, you need to weigh up the benefits of each of the 30 flavours to decide which is preferred. This is no mean feat, considering the likely limitations in knowledge of each of the flavours. When we decide, the opportunity cost of the decision is any one of the 29 other flavours we have forgone. And quite simply, the more alternatives we forgo, the less likely we are to be assured that the decision we made was the best alternative. In fact, people are much less happy with the decision they made when there are more alternatives, even if it is definitely the best one for them. This is because there is only a slight benefit over the second best alternative, and people only judge outcomes on this marginal benefit.

Also, if we compare ice-cream flavours in a pairwise manner, which means comparing two at a time, to determine our preferred flavour, we end up with 2¬30 small decisions to make, equal to the one we made at the previous store when we only had to decide between chocolate and vanilla. This can often lead to decision paralysis, where we simply avoid the choice because the process of making a choice itself is such a burden that the ice-cream will not make up for it.

Decision paralysis can bee seen widely in everyday life. At the moment, a friend of mine is visiting from abroad, and is trying to make a choice about his direction in life. Because there are so many options to choose he cannot pick one over the other, and when he does choose, there will be a second best alternative very close to as good as the one he takes, which he will always compare himself to.

In behavioural economics experiments it has been clearly shown that too much choice is a hindrance. For example, consider those free taste tests you sometimes get at the supermarket. It has been shown that it is best not to give too many options. The taste tests that give less than five varieties get more people to buy any one of them than taste tests with ten or more varieties. Also, companies that offer only three or fewer alternative health insurance plans to their employees in the US, get a much higher uptake in insurance than those who offer between ten and thirty different plans.

This leaves us in a tricky situation. If we only derive satisfaction from the benefit we get from a choice compared with the next best alternative, than too much choice is bring down human welfare. It is making us unhappy. But is there an optimal amount of choice?


  1. Who chooses how much choice we should have? ;)

  2. My question is, how often we are allowed to attend the ice cream store. Misery would not be that big if we could have an other flavour after we found out that the first one wasn't good for us after all.