TED Radio Hour
9:20 am
Fri November 15, 2013

Are We Happier When We Have More Options?

Originally published on Thu December 26, 2013 3:06 pm

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Misconceptions.

About Barry Schwartz's TEDTalk

Psychologist Barry Schwartz takes aim at a central tenet of western societies: freedom of choice. In Schwartz's estimation, choice has made us not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied.

About Barry Schwartz

Barry Schwartz is a professor at Swarthmore College. He studies the link between economics and psychology. In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz wonders why is it that societies of great abundance — where individuals are offered more freedom and choice are now witnessing a near-epidemic of depression. Conventional wisdom says that greater choice is for the greater good, but Schwartz argues the opposite: He makes a compelling case that the abundance of choice in today's western world is actually making us miserable.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

OK, misconception No. 5 - who doesn't like to have lots of choices, right? Like, say, for example, salad dressing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BARRY SCHWARTZ: I want to say just a word about salad dressing.

RAZ: This is Barry Schwartz, a social psychologist, and this is from his TED talk...

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SCHWARTZ: A hundred and seventy-five salad dressings in my supermarket, if you don't count the 10 extra virgin olive oils and 12 balsamic vinegars you could buy to make a very large number of your own salad dressings, in the off-chance that none of the 175 the store has on offer suit you.

RAZ: Which is what it's all about. Why we are happy, why we live more fulfilling lives because of our limitless choices.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SCHWARTZ: The official dogma of all Western industrial societies runs like this: If we are interested in maximizing the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximize individual freedom. The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice. The more choice people have, the more freedom they have. And the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have. This, I think, is so deeply embedded in the water supply that it wouldn't occur to anybody it is not true.

RAZ: How - how can that be? I mean, choice is what we all want, right? I mean, choice is a good thing.

SCHWARTZ: Absolutely, and it is a good thing. People want control; they want autonomy. The mistake that we've made is to think that since choice is good, it's only good.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SCHWARTZ: So I'm going to talk about what's bad about it. One effect, paradoxically, is that it produces paralysis rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all. I'll give you one very dramatic example of this - a study that was done of investments in voluntary retirement plans. A colleague of mine got access to investment records from Vanguard, the gigantic mutual fund company of about a million employees and about 2,000 different workplaces.

And what she found is that for every 10 mutual funds the employer offered, rate of participation went down 2 percent. You offer 50 funds, 10 percent fewer employees participate than if you only offer five. Why? Because with 50 funds to choose from, it's so damn hard to decide which fund to choose that you'll just put it off till tomorrow, and then tomorrow and, of course, tomorrow never comes. So that's one of effect. The second effect is that even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice then we would be if we had fewer options to choose from. The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose.

RAZ: Too much choice actually makes us less free. It's paralysis rather than liberation, which sounds...

SCHWARTZ: That's right.

RAZ: ...It sounds crazy.

SCHWARTZ: It does sound crazy. I mean, imagine you have cereal for breakfast every morning, and you alternate between Rice Krispies and Corn Chex.

RAZ: OK.

SCHWARTZ: I don't like Rice Krispies and Corn Chex. The fact that there are alternatives makes my life better.

RAZ: Right.

SCHWARTZ: And so the logic here is that when you add options, you don't make anybody worse off because you can ignore them, and you make somebody better off.

RAZ: Yeah.

SCHWARTZ: And that's perfectly sensible, logically. It just turns out not to be true, psychologically.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SCHWARTZ: This hit me when I went to replace my jeans after years and years of wearing these old ones. And the shopkeeper said: Do you want slim-fit, easy-fit, relaxed-fit? You want button fly or zipper fly? You want stonewashed or acid washed? You want them distressed? Do you want boot-cut? Do you want tapered? Blah, blah, blah. On and on he went. My jaw dropped and after I recovered, I said I want the kind that used to be the only kind. He had no idea what that was.

So I spent an hour trying on all these damn jeans; and I walked out of the store - truth - with the best-fitting jeans I had ever had. I did better, but I felt worse. Why? I wrote a whole book to try to explain this to myself. The reason is that with all of these options available, my expectations about how good a pair of jeans should be went up. And what I got was good, but it wasn't perfect.

RAZ: So here's the thing, I hear that and I'm thinking, OK, this is about as American as it gets, right? I mean, you can choose whatever you want. You can do anything you want.

SCHWARTZ: Exactly so. So there's a cartoon that I show often, when I give talks, of a fishbowl. Your typical goldfish bowl. And there's a parent fish and a baby fish. And the caption reads you can be anything you want to be, no limits. Right, you know, we're supposed to laugh at the myopia of the parent fish - no limits - in a fishbowl that has nothing in it. But I think the deep insight is that everybody needs a fishbowl. So when you shatter the fishbowl, and my argument is that's sort of what 21st century affluent Western society is like, when you shatter the fishbowl and everything is possible, is that a good thing? And the answer, surprisingly to the assumptions we make, is that, no, it's not a good thing. Choice within constraint is essential. Choice without constraint is paralyzing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SCHWARTZ: So there's no question that some choice is better than none, but it doesn't follow from that that more choice is better than some choice. Nowadays, the world we live in, we affluent industrialized citizens with perfection the expectation, the best you can ever hope for is that stuff is as good as you expect it to be. You will never be pleasantly surprised because your expectations, my expeditions, have gone through the roof. The secret to happiness - this is what you all came for - the secret to happiness is low expectations.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHWARTZ: Then there was this nervous laughter. But that seemed maybe a little too pessimistic. So let me say the secret to happiness is to have realistic expectations. And if you're going to err, err on the low side. It's really nice to be pleasantly surprised. It sucks to be disappointed.

RAZ: Barry Schwartz, he's a psychologist who wrote a book called "The Paradox of Choice." You can find his entire talk at TED.com. So if you could pick the perfect, like, the optimum number of salad dressings, right, on the shelf, what would it be?

SCHWARTZ: There's a little bit of research on this and it suggests that somewhere around 6 to 10.

RAZ: Six to 10?

SCHWARTZ: Yes. Somewhere between 6 and 10 everybody seems to be able to find one that they're satisfied with.

(MUSIC)

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to the show on misconceptions this week. If you missed any of it or if you want to hear more, if you want to find out more about who was on it, you can check out TED.NPR.org. You can also find many more TED talks at TED.com. And you can download this show through iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app. I'm Guy Raz. You've been listening to ideas worth spreading on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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