Failure to Act, Regrets, and Why Inertia Can Be a Good Thing -- Lessons on Choice From Barry Schwartz

Psychologist Barry Schwartz is the author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, and in 2006 he gave a TED Talk on the subject - a couple of years before TED became the internet phenomenon it is now. This TED Talk is another of my all-time favourites, and was always going to be part of My Year of TED. It formed the basis for 30 Days of Choice, and speaking with Barry last year, I gained even greater insight into why this activity was so difficult for me.

I should start by saying that 30 Days of Choice, coupled with 30 Days of Being Wrong, was a huge epiphany moment for me during My Year of TED. If you want to challenge you mental stability, focus on why you make choices, and your regrets for about two months - you're bound to get some 'clarity'.

What I discovered, was that my biggest regrets came from choices I didn't make - they came from moments where I allowed the universe, or other people to make decisions for me, where I just went with the flow. My two failed marriages are the best examples of this, yes I'm a slow learner sometimes.

The societal problem with too much choice

During our conversation, I asked Barry whether there was anything he didn't get to say in his TED Talk, that he wishes he did.

I think the bigger point, and the one I hoped the audience would listen to since they are often in positions of power and authority, is that we use the power of choice as a justification for allowing the market to pretty much organise every aspect of life. The market caters to freedom of choice, and since freedom of choice is good - the market is good, and I think this is a very destructive view.

The markets are good, but they're also bad, and the bad sometimes completely overshadows the good. So my hope was that it would sort of chip away a little bit at something that I think people just take for granted. Which is that freedom is good, markets cater to freedom, therefore markets are good - full stop.

Given that we all understand the history of the market crash a few years later, I don't think that the audience got that point - and neither does Barry. After all, he only had 18 minutes in the talk, and it would appear that inside the US his book wasn't able to get that point across either:

...journalists from outside the US immediately see the implication of the choice argument; for journalists in the US, it's all about shopping. So I love to talk to European journalists because they're interested in social structure, social organisation, social institutions and they see implications for all of those things. So those are really interesting conversations, but they rarely occur on this side of the Atlantic.

Even after the Global Financial Crisis, I don't think we've worked it out. Governments haven't taken to regulating the market with more vigour, and the range of trade agreements currently under negotiation in the world would indicate that we're giving corporations even greater power to "organise every aspect of life." So, on a macro-scale it would appear that, sadly, the message has not gained traction.

Our individual problems with Choice

Barry's book is a fantastic insight into all of the reasons we make poor choices in our lives - and on the whole we make a lot of poor choices. As I mentioned though, the biggest epiphany for me was that I wasn't making choices about the big things; I was going with the flow, and not being an active decision maker. Barry's comment about my regrets was:

There's research which regrets hurt more, the things you do that don't work out or the things you don't do that might have worked out, and it's quite interesting that in the short run the sting of bad actions is much worse than the failures to act. So when you ask people about last week they'll tell you all the things they did that they shouldn't have done, but when you ask them about five years ago or 20 years ago, they'll tell you about all the things they didn't do that they should have done.

I found it reassuring that this is how everyone else works as well, and I think on some level we understand that regrets change over time - it's just nice to have someone tell you that you're normal.


Sticking with the status quo

It's more than that though, more than just not being able to remember exactly what you were thinking or feeling when you made a decision - because I wasn't making decisions. But Barry reassured me that this was quite normal as well:

There is a temptation to let big things happen to you, because people are so worried about how they'll feel if they take ownership of big decisions and they don't work out. It takes courage to own up to the fact that you're in charge of this and you have to decide, and it's not hard for me to understand why people are sometimes reluctant to do that. Fear of a bad outcome just completely dominates the anticipation of a good outcome when it comes to big decisions.

People stick with their jobs, they stick with job they don't hate but they don't love, rather than risking a new job or a new career. It doesn't feel nearly as much of a decision that you are keeping your job as it would feel if you changed your job, and I think maybe the same thing with relationships.

For me, this was the most profound part of the choice conversation, because I realised how important it is to be aware of this massive flaw in our decision making. When faced with a choice to change something in our lives, we give more weight to the status quo than the potentially positive outcomes of the new situation.

Is this all bad? Maybe, maybe not.

You know the saying "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" - when does something become broken enough to 'fix'? If you are actually going to change a situation, that is a massive shift; even if you are miserable where you are, staying is just staying. But as Barry explained to me, there are benefits to this inertia:

I think that is the common attitude that people have, and I think unless things are just miserable with no redeeming features; but you can find some things about your current job or your current relationship that are positive, that you might lose if you changed. This is not all bad.

I think there are relationships, for example, where there's a rough patch, and if you found it easy to overcome inertia, you might well make a bad decision to end a relationship when it was just a rough patch, and things were going to get better. So the fact people have a hard time doing that probably saves lots of relationships that should be saved - but it also saves lots of relationships that shouldn't be saved, that's the problem. You don't know which one is yours until you're at the end.

What are the main points for you?

So what did I want to share with you from the man who wrote the book on choice? Well, this is what I took away from the conversation:

  • The market has too much control, and we haven't learned our lesson about that; if anything it's becoming even worse. This is definitely a relationship we need to consider leaving!
  • Regrets about the actions we didn't take hurt more over time than the ones we did - so take the risk!
  • Sometimes we are all tempted to just let things happen to us, so we don't have to own the outcome of making a choice. You don't want to do that on the big decisions!
  • You shouldn't necessarily make the decision to leave a job or relationship because a new option looks better, or things aren't as good anymore - but you shouldn't stay forever. If it doesn't improve, you need to acknowledge it is broken, and making the decision to leave can be the only way to fix it!

If you want to learn more about decision making, and how to become a more active decision maker in your own life, I have a free set of resources on the topic.

In the next article in this series, I'll cover the discussion I had with Barry about our loss of wisdom.