Resolving the Paradox of Choice

The Modern Survival Guide #76

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The Paradox of Choice

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).

The Problem of Obsolescence

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).

A Practical Resolution in Two Parts

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

The Satisfaction of Satisficing

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.

Searching for truth in a world focused on belief.

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