Interview with Barry Schwartz
Are you worried that you’ll make the wrong choice today? It might be a decision that is life changing – like to stay or leave your current job - or something must simpler – like which route will be the fastest way to get work. But with more information available to us than ever before, the truth is that it’s become increasingly difficult to feel confident that we’re making the right choices and studies suggest that this is impacting our happiness and wellbeing.
“The fact that some choice is good and gives you a feeling of freedom and power, doesn't necessarily mean that more choice is better,” said Barry Schwartz, from Swarthmore College and author of The Paradox of Choice when I interviewed him recently. “As your number of choices grow, you reach a point where instead of being liberated by options, you become paralyzed, make bad decisions because you’re overwhelmed and even when you make good decisions you’re dissatisfied with them because you think the alternative may have been better.”
Barry suggests that the key is understanding how much freedom of choice serves you well in different situations. For example:
- If you’re out to get the best outcome from whatever decision you're making, then you need to examine all of your options. This is what Barry calls “Maximizing”.
- If instead you’re only out to find “good enough” – even if your standards for good enough are quite high - then you look at your options one at a time until you find one that meets your standards and then you stop looking. This is what Barry calls “Satisficing”.
Whilst some people are more inclined to pursue the best and other people are more inclined to pursue good enough, Barry’s research indicates that people who are out to find the best objectively make better decisions but subjectively feel worse about how they’ve done. In fact, studies have found that people with high maximization scores experience less satisfaction with life, are less happy, are less optimistic and more depressed. More susceptible to “buyer’s remorse” their quest for perfection frequently causes them to experience regret and pain about their choices.
Barry suggests that the most plausible way to limit the choice problem and the costs of being a Maximizer, therefore, is to deliberately adopt the strategy that “good enough” is good enough in virtually every decision you face provided that you understand being a Satisficer doesn't mean you don't have high standards. Instead, try to see your standards as a moving target, so while your new product is currently “good enough” to launch, you can still be on the lookout for ways to improve and build upon what the last decision you’ve made.
“Choosing wisely starts with developing a clear understanding of your goals and values,” advises Barry. “And allowing yourself to be satisfied once your experiences measure up to these”. Here are three ways Barry suggested you can experiment with making better choices today:
- Choose When to Choose – having the opportunity to choose is essential for your wellbeing, but to manage the problem of excessive choices in your life you must decide which ones really matter and focus your time and energy on these (i.e. your next job) and restrict your choices on others (i.e. where to park your car) or let other opportunities pass you by (i.e. a new pair of jeans you don't really need). Be mindful of the opportunity cost of having too many choices in every area of your life.
- Satisfice More, Maximize Less – develop well defined standards for what is ‘good enough’ for you by considering your goals, aspirations, and what matters most to you and go after these whilst accepting that if you fall short it's because you're not quite there yet but you're learning and getting closer all the time. The trick is to learn to embrace and appreciate satisficing, to cultivate it in more and more aspects of your life, rather than merely being resigned to it.
- Align Your Values - if you’re facing difficult choices, Barry gives two handy rules of thumb to use to help you align your options with your deepest values. Firstly, asking yourself ‘would you tell your kids’ about your decision can be a good reality check. And if you’re making decisions that will have an impact on the lives of others considering how they would perceive and judge your final conclusions, can help you gain important perspectives.
What decision will you make today?