I read an interesting article that my mom sent me. She sent me the paper copy from the AARP bulletin that she (apparently) receives. The gist of the article (authored by Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz) is that the free market is good at giving consumers choices, but an abundance of choices can cause decision paralysis and dissatisfaction. These are primarily afflictions suffered by “maximizers” — people who’s goal in decision-making is to get “the best” as opposed to “satisficers” who’s goal is to be satisfied.

I’ve done enough thinking and had enough therapy to know that, at least in most decisions I’m faced with, a right decision is impossible for those of us that aren’t omniscient. We do the best we can with what the tools and knowledge we have.

I probably came to the concept of “good enough” first under Jack Smith at Kesmai. It’s really a simple concept, but at the time was hard to apply. I’d work on a project. Once it was good enough, and I acknowledged that it was good enough, he’d want me to task switch and work on something else. I would want to make the original project better. In just a couple of hours, I could really improve aspect X. It took me a while to get good at determining what good enough was and stopping there. Either it wasn’t good enough if aspect X wasn’t improved, or it was and therefore improving aspect X was a waste of time.

What’s probably most disappointing about the article is also least surprising given Schwartz’s position in the academy. Rather than suggesting tactics for becoming a “satisficer”, Schwartz instead suggests our lives are improved by fewer choices.

Limited options can be liberating, and we should value at least some constraints on our freedom of choice.

He then goes on to refer to seatbelt laws — a topic (along with motorcycle helmets) I’ll have to save for a later blog.

The article ends a little too soon. The last paragraph is

While it’s true that a life without any freedom of choice would not be worth living, more choices doesn’t necessarily mean greater happiness.

It seems to me, it should read “more choices doesn’t necessarily mean greater happiness for Barry Schwartz, therefore he would like his choices limited. The only way to really limit Barry’s choices is to limit all of our choices. And we already have an organization designed to do just that. Let’s get the government to limit our choices. In the end we’ll all be happier.”

The concept that there is some “right” amount of choice that would maximize happiness and well-being for all Americans (or any other group) is the same sort of fuzzy thinking evident in minimum wage laws (another blog for the future). Even more troubling is the idea that even if there were some right amount of choice, that some centralized body would be the best way to determine it. I have not yet read The Wisdom of Crowds, but thanks to the little bit I know of market economics certainly, I find the premise quite plausible. (The premise is that many untrained can collectively make a better decision than an elite few.)

So, I don’t think that the answer to the abundance of choice is government legislation limiting our freedom. Instead, I think it’s an educated consumer, and one that seeks satisfaction rather than “the best”. Artificially limiting our choice simply retards the growth and intelligence of the consumer – a poor choice as far as I’m concerned.

On a side, but related, note I do know people for whom these choices do cause the sort of paralysis/anxiety professor Schwartz refers to. I remember the (at least partly) humorous idea of setting up a website — www.RunCJ’sLife.com πŸ˜‰