My most recent pop psychology book is The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. The thesis, which I haven't really seen explored elsewhere, is that sometimes having more choices can make you feel less free--or at least less satisfied with the outcome of your choices. It's really more the "counterintuitive results of choice" than a paradox, but it is still interesting to think about.
A lot of the examples were shopping-related. I have noticed that when I want to buy something, I tend to actually be less satisfied if I spend a long time gathering "maybe" candidates from amazon and other websites, comparing them with options from local stores, reading reviews, becoming a mini-expert in the field, etc., than if I just bought the first one that occurred to me. The book gave some solid reasons why that might be:
- Considering many options, with different pluses and minuses, makes you more aware of trade-offs, and as the list of discarded options grows, so does the list of potential pluses you're giving up, while the list of pluses to the one you actually pick stays the same.
- Investing a lot of time in a decision may net you a slightly better result, or it may not; but it definitely means you're more disappointed if it doesn't work out. You can't say, "Oh, well, easy come, easy go."
- Investing a lot of time in a decision means you're putting pressure on yourself. Not only are you generally disappointed if it doesn't work out, but you blame yourself for making the wrong choice.
The same concepts apply to bigger choices, too, like what career to have or who to marry. While the book doesn't go so far as to champion a world with the economic and social boundaries that made those kinds of choices impossible, it does kind of skirt the line sometimes.
And that's about it. The book really reads like a 1,000 word essay expanded to 200 pages with mostly filler. There are some good experiment descriptions, but there's also a lot of self-helpy advice stuff. I would have preferred more on the science.
In case you're wondering, here are Schwartz's suggestions for overcoming choice paralysis:
- Arbitrarily limit the number of choices you're considering, for example by picking from among the available options in a single store instead of going to multiple stores. (Admittedly this one is easier for shopping than for big things like career changes. But a similar exercise for the bigger decisions is to make a "yes" or "no" decision on each option that comes up, rather than attempting to compare several. i.e. only consider the possible pluses and minuses of taking job B if you have already decided "no" on job A. This seems impossible to actually do, though.)
- Before considering any options, decide on certain requirements. Then, take the first thing that meets those requirements, refusing to care that there might be something better somewhere out there. (This one is nice because it applies equally well to buying jeans or getting married... although it is a little unromantic on both cases. I really want to believe that my jeans are the perfect jeans for me!)