Resolving the Paradox of Choice

The Modern Survival Guide #76

This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of trouble in the shampoo aisle at the grocery store. It’s too much. Too many options, too many brands, too many choices, and never enough on-hand data to make a good selection. This is a problem we all find in modern life, it can impact modern survival, and it’s time we did something about it.

In his 2004 book, psychologist Barry Schwartz called this problem The Paradox of Choice, and he broke down the issue as follows: Everyone has needs. We attempt to meet these needs by making choices. To make a choice, we array our possible options, judge them against our need, and choose one based on the available data. For choices we make for common needs, we iterate the experience — we use the results of the past choice to help determine the next choice. But the more options we have, the harder it is to make this choice (because the data crunch gets real), and the more likely it is we will make a sub-optimal choice (because there’s always a better product somewhere).

Schwartz decided that there were two kinds of people in the word: maximizers and satisficers. A maximizer attempts to consider all the alternatives and pick the best one (the maximally effective choice). A satisficer has a set of minimum standards, and picks the first option that meets the standards (the satisfactory choice). Schwartz decided that it was better to be a satisficer, because it involves less psychological stress. But there are problems with this conclusion.

Ok, so here’s the issue: you can’t do either of these things if you aren’t iterating — which is to say, both maximizing and satisficing require experience with a product. They don’t really work for the first choice, they only work if you’re making a repeated choice. You have to have data from experience with the product before you can practically choose either of these options (because we can’t, and shouldn’t, trust advertising).

Now, that’s doesn’t seem like too much of a problem, especially if we’re just going for a satisficing outcome. If we just have to meet a set of standards, all we need is one data point. But it breaks down very quickly due to one simple concept that has permeated the modern world:

Planned Obsolescence

Even if you’ve never seen that phrase before, you’re probably familiar with this concept: just about everything we own is designed to break down or get phased out.

You’re not imagining it, they really did build most things better in years past. Clothes, washing machines, iPhones, etc. And the things that actually have gotten better over the years — cars and computers, just to name a couple of examples — are still designed to be superseded by newer products. There’s a reason why car makers keep changing their body styles and upgrading their interior options, and there’s a reason why Microsoft comes out with a new version of Windows every few years. They are incentivized to do so in order to keep making money on the same products.

Planned obsolescence means that there are always new products (or new versions of the same product) coming onto the market, deliberately replacing older products. And that means that we have to endure the paradox of choice over and over and over again, and our strategies for resolving it on the product level rapidly phase out of use and have to be replaced. I have lost track of how many times my shampoo brand has changed, or I’ve switched to a new shampoo brand on a whim because I couldn’t find the old one.

If I have to buy a new thing every time I need something, neither maximizing nor satisficing strategies work. Both lack sufficient data to make a decision on a first-time purchase. And there are a lot of things that I only buy once every few years — more than enough time for planned obsolescence to overtake my last product choice.

There are practical resolutions for this kind of dilemma, and I can name at least two.

Number one is called “expert assistance.” In other words, just Google the damn thing. But seriously, the practical solution for the Paradox of Choice in the modern age is simple: if you are a resource-conscious consumer, don’t be the first person to buy anything. Leave that to the experts. And by experts, I mean professional product reviewers.

Nine times out of ten, if I want to know which product to buy, I run a Google search and pick the first legit-looking consumer report I can find that gives me ratings for different brands of that product. I know this is a flawed system; it’s vulnerable to hijacking by interested companies. But it’s also the best satisficing option — it allows me to plug in the amount of money I’d like to spend and evaluate different options for that price point. My array of satisficing variables is reduced to one: how many stars the widget gets.

Number two is called “impulse shopping.” This applies to low-resource choices — like that doughnut selection at the top of the article. All of those pastries look delightful, and I’m not going to spend the time to Google which one is the best if they cost $2 each. I’m just going to buy the one that appeals to me the most in that instant.

This is a perfectly valid resolution to the Paradox of Choice as long as I don’t give too much of a crap about the result. The resource cost is low enough that I can simply impulse-buy and eat the consequences (metaphorically and, in the case of doughnuts, literally) until I find something I like. The instant I give a crap about the resource expenditure, I’m back to the Google option.

You may have noticed that both of the practical options I listed were satisficing choices; in neither case was I attempting to figure out all the variables involved in a product choice. That is increasingly impossible for the average consumer. But, by using the expertise of others via search engines, I was also maximizing my choice. I was letting someone else do the grunt work of chasing down the data. I really was considering all the data, just at a remove.

If there’s one thing I find satisfying about the modern world, this is it:

We don’t have to know everything, because we have most of the knowledge of the human species accessible through a smart phone… and most of it comes pre-formatted, pre-evaluated, pre-tabulated.

The trick is figuring out which bit to trust, and this can get meta because there are also websites that evaluate other consumer report websites. Isn’t that fun? I think it’s fun. Because this is the real Paradox of Choice in the 21st century: not which products to choose, but which reviews to believe.

In any case, once I adopted these strategies my life — in particular my shopping life — got a lot less stressful. For the rest of y’all, good luck out there! I hear Coke is coming out with a new round of flavors soon, and we all need to get ready for the next round of weird Chinese clothes measurements.

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Searching for truth in a fractured world.

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Allen Faulton

Allen Faulton

Searching for truth in a fractured world.

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