Friday, June 14, 2013

Response to Barry Schwartz on the psychological detriment of choice

On the Psychological Detriment of Choice

This is part two of my rebuttal to the TED Talk put forth by Professor Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore University on the subject of choice. If you need a refresher, you can watch his argument here. Part one of my response, which can be found here, discussed his argument about Paralysis and Opportunity Cost. This post will discuss his arguments about the psychological downsides of more choice, which I will divide into two types.

Imagined Alternatives and Buyer’s Remorse

Schwartz argues that when we have many options to choose from and we make a choice we’re not completely happy with, it’s easy for us to imagine how much happier we could have been had we chosen differently. “This regret subtracts from our satisfaction with the decision we made, even if it was a good decision,” he says.

This makes sense, because we do indeed have a tendency to second guess ourselves and to lose interest in a thing once we’ve attained it. As the saying goes, “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” But I have three objections to this tendency being used to argue for less choice.

The first is that people want those choices anyway, and nobody has a right to take it from them. What arguing for “less choice” really entails is arguing for the restriction of that choice by an outside body, which can only be done by force. People would never willingly sacrifice those extra options; if they would, the problem would be solved, because they’d simply regulate themselves by not considering some of the options from the outset (or using one of the methods I discussed in my last post). It’s patronizing to tell people that you know better for them than they do – the  equivalent of saying “this is just too much for you to handle, so I’m going to keep it simple for you, stupid.” Maybe I’m thin-skinned, but that sentiment makes me angry on face. It’s just condescending, to such an extent that even if I knew having more choice might increase the odds that I’m disappointed, I’d still want to take that risk. The knowledge that I’m being treated like an child subtracts from my happiness much more than second guessing my mistakes does.

My second objection is to the idea that avoidable dissatisfaction is worse than the unavoidable kind. Mr. Schwartz argues that in a world where the outcome we get is beyond our control, people are happier, because they don’t blame themselves if things turn out poorly – it’s just “the system” at fault. He fails to mention that this theory should also work in reverse: we can’t feel as proud of accidental successes or happenstance pleasures, as we can of those we achieve by our own merit. But perhaps more importantly, this argument strikes me as terribly contradictory to the whole idea of America. Isn’t our destiny supposed to be up to us? Aren’t we not supposed to be stuck where we are in life? Don’t we want to give people an opportunity to change their lot, to take the reins and determine their own fate? They may not always succeed, and on rare occasions they may have lived better if it wasn’t up to them. But it should still be up to them!

“Choice is the essence of what I believe it is to be human.” - Liv Ullmann

History demonstrates that when people lack that freedom, they’re far from content. People with unavoidable dissatisfaction do not casually shrug it off because it’s not their fault. Rather, they demand that they be given the chance to sink or swim on their own merits. Whether that’s on bigger-picture things like getting a job, or comparably trivial things like buying jeans, I want that freedom. If something is bad in my life, I take solace in knowing it’s bad because I screwed up, rather than because somebody’s oppressing me. The first is a misstep; the second is an injustice.

This brings us to my third objection to this argument: this tendency to second guess ourselves can be avoided, or at least mitigated, by a healthy change in perspective. What Schwartz portrays as universal facts of human nature are actually highly variable (and perhaps alterable) questions of individual disposition. It is true that some people consumed with regret each time they do something dumb. Some people can’t get over their own imperfection and allow it to eat them up inside. The existence of superior alternatives may indeed drive these people crazy. But what Schwartz fails to see is that many people are not like that, because they’ve learned to get over it. They’ve learned to accept those everyday blunders as a part of life, and to just go with the flow. These people have the maturity, wisdom, and sense of perspective to live life in the present. They do the best they can and don’t look back. They are appreciative of life’s blessings. And they are like this not because they were born with this wisdom, but because they learned this important key to happiness along the way.

If Barry Schwartz truly wants to prevent people from regretting their poor decisions, that’s the message he should be using his TED Talk to spread. The culprit here is not choice, it’s neuroticism and jealousy. It’s the tendency of some (but by no means all) people to take what we have for granted. The solution to that problem is not to limit the choices of those with a healthy disposition. It’s to teach everyone else how to adopt that disposition.

The Escalation of Expectations

Schwartz’ final argument is somewhat related to his second. The more options we have, he notes, the happier we expect to be with whatever option we eventually choose. And this is bad, he suggests, because sometimes the raised expectations outpace the actual improvements which increased choice stands to bring us.

Schwartz uses his jeans story to demonstrate this possibility in action: because there were so many options to choose from, he expected that the jeans he wound up with would be more comfortable than they actually were. Although this is merely an anecdote, it makes sense and I’m sure it happens to lots of people. I have experienced it myself: one example was with a Madden 13 video game I purchased. I expected it to be awesome, only to find out that my favorite game mode – franchise mode – had been removed. This bummed me out for about a day. But unlike Mr. Schwartz, my eventual reaction when I caught myself raising my expectations beyond reason was not to complain about the system that “made” me ungrateful. It was to fix my head. I soon realized the game was still cooler than the Madden 11 version I’d been playing previously, even without franchise mode. I regained perspective, became thankful for the things I had, and made myself content with them. Instead of allowing myself to be disappointed when reality fell short of my imagination, I allowed myself to be pleased that reality had improved over what it was previously.

Choice itself is not the root problem and getting rid of choice is not the solution. A much more sensible solution is to find ways to lower expectations without decreasing wealth alongside it. Schwartz says that adding options to people’s lives “can’t help but raise their expectations”, again asserting this as an unchangeable fact of the human brain. Maybe that’s true to some extent. But we can certainly temper those expectations by teaching people to more fully appreciate the many blessings their lives already feature. Doing so would make us far happier than restricting our choices would, because our objective absolute wealth would not diminish alongside our expectations. It also wouldn’t restrict anybody’s rights in the process or make people feel oppressed.

Ultimately the professor’s analysis falls flat because it attempts to bite off more than it can chew. The question of “what is the secret to happiness?” is about far more than the choices we face. For the most part, happiness is itself a choice. Martha Washington once wisely noted that “The greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.”

Besides, even if choice were the culprit, it’s far too late to get rid of it now, because those expectations have already risen thanks to prior exposure to a world with choice. If people are unhappy with an almost perfect pair of jeans, how much more unhappy would they be with the crappy, one-size-fits-all version of yesteryear? Unlike in “the good old days” people today already know more comfortable jeans are possible, so they’d practically revolt were they to be constrained once more.

Political Implications

This leads me to one more central problem with all three parts of Schwartz’ argument: he compares only the desirability of two end states, without examining the means required to attain those ends. Philosophically, this is fine, but when you try to translate this into policy – as Schwartz does – the morality and practicality of what government would have to actually do to bring about his desired world cannot be overlooked.

At 16:45 of his above video, Schwartz says that the “official dogma” of “choices enhance welfare, and more choice means more freedom, so more freedom means more welfare” is false, because:

“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. There’s some magical amount. I don’t know what it is, but I’m pretty confident that we have long since passed the point where options improve our welfare…Everybody needs a fishbowl…The absence of some metaphorical fishbowl is a recipe for misery”

How does this apply to politics? Towards the end of the video, Schwartz references redistribution of wealth programs as a benevolent favor to wealthy people who can’t decide where to give their charity dollars, saying “Income redistribution will make everyone better off, not just poor people, because of how all this excess choice plays us.”

But this is an immoral (not to mention ineffectual) solution to an easily solvable problem. Perhaps Mitt Romney has set aside a portion of money to give to charity, but cannot decide, (or does not want to decide, or does not have time to decide) whether to give his money to a starving African orphan, or to a special needs kid with autism, or to an inner-city Philadelphia school district, or to support cancer research. Thankfully, he doesn’t need to: he can give his money to a charitable organization like Catholic World Relief or Mercy Corps to make that decision for him. Such groups are involved in all of those things at once, and are tasked with divvying up the money they receive in a way that will, in the opinion of their experts with boots on the ground, bring the greatest good to the greatest number. Not only is this more efficient than trusting government to make those decisions, but it’s morally superior because the transactions are strictly voluntary. Just as I described in Part I of my response, this is a choice that saves him from making choices. But other people are free to choose differently, and that's great because that maximizes their happiness too! Perhaps another rich guy prefers to bypass the big charities and give their money to the homeless man down the road, face-to-face, because that's what gives him the most pleasure. And others might prefer to invest all their money into a business, which could then give that homeless man a job. 

Centralized, wealth redistribution programs do not allow for this diversity. Government cannot find the universally preferable distribution of charity funds, because it does not exist; each person might rationally prefer to distribute differently. Nor can government find that "magical amount" of choice, or that optimal level of freedom to permit us, because those don't exist either. The ideal quantity of decision making autonomy is different for every person and every decision, and imposing it one-size fits all is the definition of oppression.


The question is not whether or not we should have a fishbowl, because we all have one by default – there are limits to what we’re capable of doing, processing and deciding between in a mere lifetime. Rather, the question is who gets to decide where the boundaries of our personal fishbowls lie? Us, or someone else? We each may have an optimum level of choice, but since it’s nowhere near the same for each person, I demand the right to set my own limits. I have no problem with Mr. Schwartz eliminating choices from his own life that I’d prefer to keep. If he doesn’t want to make his own investment decisions, he can hire a broker to make them for him. If he doesn’t care what type of jeans he gets, he can hire a stylist to buy them for him. He can place a metaphorical fishbowl around his own life – he’d just better not try to trap me in there with him.

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