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When I was a kid crisps came in one variety, ready-salted. We were a comfortable middle-class family so we had the luxury of two pairs of shoes – one for home and one for school, and when we left school we got a job (and probably kept it).

Now we have choice. Thirty-six varieties of crisp and counting, shoes are a whole fashion industry in themselves, and career planning has spawned an industry!
An array of choice is arresting, it gets attention, but it also stymies our ability to act. When, in tests, shoppers were given a discount voucher to buy jam, they used it 10 times more often when they had just six varieties, than when they had 24 to choose from.

As options multiply, for shoppers anyway, it seems that the effort needed to make a choice outweighs the benefits of a wide range of options.
“At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates” says psychologist and author Barry Schwartz, “It might even be said to tyrannise.” The fact that some choice is good doesn’t automatically mean that more choice is better.

Schwartz goes on to say that we’d all be better off if we:

  • Embrace voluntary limits to our freedom of choice, rather than rebelling against them
  • Aim for what is ‘good enough’, rather than seeking the best
  • Lower our expectations about the results of decisions
  • Ensure that our decisions are non-reversible
  • Pay less attention to what others around us are doing.

So do we think we have choice because it is what we want, or do we want choice because we are told we can have it? Conventional wisdom, once again, is open to challenge.

See also

Schwartz, B., (2010), The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Harper, London.

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