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Monday, July 30, 2007

Interesting Paradox - Choices

Gladwell - TED Talk - Malcolm Gladwell talks about providing choices that people don't even know that they want.

Barry Schwartz takes aim at a central belief of western societies: that freedom of choice leads to personal happiness. In Schwartz's estimation, all that choice is making us miserable. We set unreasonably high expectations, question our choices before we even make them, and blame our failures entirely on ourselves. His relatable examples, from consumer products (jeans, TVs, salad dressings) to lifestyle choices (where to live, what job to take, whom and when to marry), underscore this central point: Too many choices undermine happiness.


Jody Baty said...

There are some interesting parallels here with the area of software development. Too many features and options lead to confusing, bloated software. We think, as developers, that we're doing users a favour by allowing them to do things in 10 different ways, but really we aren't.

Part of the problem of bloated software has to do with the way products have traditionally been distributed; that is, physical media with new release versions every 12-18 months. The new 'software as a service model' has an opportunity to change this. Vendors no longer have to keep adding features so they can sell the next version of their software (and continue the revenue stream).

The opinionated software movement ( is about making reasonable choices for users and simplifying applications. Let's give users the tools, and then get out of way!


César Córcoles said...

The paradox of choice is, certainly, an interesting one, but most people talking about the subject miss at least one point: filters. The paradox of choice, for example, would mean that more than 50 million blogs is a bad thing. Too much information, too much noise, too much everything. I'd say most readers of this blog would disagree that 50 million blogs is a bad thing.

yes, I'm not going to read 50 million blogs (not to talk about billions of web pages all over the net), but I don't need to: there are things (filters!) like Google and Pagerank, or Technorati, or my friends and colleagues blogrolls, or the popular feed that allow me to skip 99.99% of that and get to the content I want.

Is more than one million tunes available on iTunes bad? Or one zillion records (and books and) on Amazon bad? I don't think so. One million tunes without filters and recommendations is hell. One million tunes with filters and recommendations is quite close to heaven, if you ask me.

I don't think there is a problem with choice if you have the right tools...

Tony Karrer said...

Good comments. The point is that Gladwell suggests that we need to add choices, even choices that the consumer doesn't necessarily know they want AND Schwartz suggests that too much choice is a bad thing. Have you stared at the Soup, Coffee or Spaghetti Sauce isle and felt there was a problem? Or worse yet trying to buy a PC.

While we need to add choices, we also then need to add mechanisms (filters, recommendations, etc.) that effectively reduce the choices.

Robert Greenwood said...

Wow, what divergent views. They couldn’t be any different. I must disagree with Mr. Schwartz. I found some of his comments outrageous. He says having a wide variety of choices somehow transforms us into victims of hurt feelings and unmet expectations.

If we chose to be the victims of every disappointment or mistake what does that say about our attitude, or our character? Dang, if we only had fewer choices it wouldn’t be so difficult to shift responsibility for our predicament to someone else.

Life is full of disappointments, mistakes and unmet expectations. Many of them occur despite best efforts. Instead of ruminating, or writing a book ‘get over it’. Pick yourself up and make a different choice next time. All choices have a consequence. It’s called experience. I’ll stick my neck out here and suggest it might even be called 'learning'.

Buying a bottle of salad dressing, or a pair of jeans need not be a life altering, crippling event. Hey, ‘stuff happens’. By the way, thinking physicians hesitate to make pointed recommendations to their patients because of trial lawyers, not because there are too many options.

Boomers like me grew up in a time when a handful of people decided what we were going to read in the newspaper or watch on TV (black and white). They decided which story was news and which we would see or read. Due to the ‘freedom’ to make so many information choices on the Web that situation is ancient history.

Mr. Schwartz says we would be happier with fewer choices. If the number of choices were to be reduced who would decide what remained? Would it be determined by the government? Or would the choices be set by someone like Mr. Schwartz and some focus group? Would we be back to three TV channels and newscasts? No, thank you.

I want thirty-six varieties of Ragu in my fishbowl. Malcolm rules! What an insightful, humorous look at the psychology of the human condition. Malcolm’s story shows how an increasing number of options have and will enhance our lives.

Thank you for a provocative, thoughtful post. I enjoyed it very much.

Take care, Bob

Anonymous said...

I think I might want to question whether our primary aim in life is simply to be happy - if this were so, we could all trip out on Soma and live happily ever afterwards. Those who simply seek 'happiness', whatever that might be defined as, are always, I guess, likely to be disappointed much of the time, if not most of the time.

Scwartz is right, of course, that for such people the sheer scope and variety in consumer choice, for instance, merely adds to the inevitable lack of happiness because we simply cannot have everything we might choose to 'want'.

But I really think we need to look to other purposes in life than mere happiness - our moral/ethical choices, for instance, are more about our internal attitudes and belief systems than about selections from a menu. In this case, it is not a matter of externally-provided options, but the outcomes of our own rational thinking (or even irrational thinking where religious belief comes into play).

Thought-provoking stuff though - thanks for the pointer.

John Connell

Anonymous said...

I taught high school in a county that had fewer residents than my brother's high school back in Detroit had students. There's nothing like being a reader when the bookmobile comes for three hours once a month to make you value options (another way of viewing "choice").

Even so, I treasure a friend's observation that many people confuse quality of life with standard of living.