Don’t Attack Choice!
Tibor R. Machan
by Tibor R. Machan
both, his book on the subject, The
Paradox of Choice (New York: ECCO, 2004), and his January
22, 2004, Op Ed piece for The New York Times, "A
Nation of Second Guesses," Professor of psychology Barry
Schwartz of Swarthmore College disparages the belief that human
beings are better off in life when they have a greater selection
of what they might choose from than when such a selection is severely
limited. As he puts the point, "there is growing evidence that
the emotional logic (the psycho-logic) is deeply flawed. Indeed,
for many people, increased choice can lead to a decrease in satisfaction.
Too many options can result in paralysis, not liberation."
support this view Professor Schwartz cites several studies in which
it is supposed to be demonstrated that people do not like to face
choices. For example, two psychologists from Columbia and Stanford,
conclude that "as the number of flavors of jam or varieties
of chocolate available to shoppers is increased, the likelihood
that they will leave the store without buying either jam or chocolate
goes up." In another piece of research by these two scientists
and Schwartz himself it was "found that as the number of job
possibilities available to college graduates goes up, applicants’
satisfaction with the job search process goes down." Finally,
Professor Schwartz cites a study that shows that "as the number
of mutual funds in a 401(k) plan offered to employees goes up, the
likelihood that they will choose a fund any fund goes down."
do not want to dispute these findings but point out that they are
largely beside the point when the issue of wide range of selections
comes into focus. But first, there is the problem, also, that it
doesn’t much matter that many folks are frustrated by too many selections
of ice cream or pharmaceuticals or whatever. Nothing at all follows
from this. Indeed, the point of having a wide selection is not to
provide various individuals with many alternatives most individuals
know pretty well the small selection of alternatives they want and
can go right to where that small selection can be found. When they
shop, for example, they do not go everywhere goods are on display
at a grocery or department stores but merely visit the small region
where their preferred selections are available. The point of having
a very large selection over all is to make it possible for all varieties
of individuals to find something they would need or want. It is
all about individualism, the rejection of the ancient doctrine of
one size fits all, not about pleasing everyone with all the selections
that are produced.
then, all the fuss about the fairly obvious fact that individuals
may find it difficult, even frustrating, to navigate the wide array
of selections in the market place? Some will solve this problem
by finding boutiques or ma and pa grocery stores in which to do
their shopping. Others will just put up with a bit of frustration.
College students will just have to face the fact that their frustration
is due to other’s need for their own job opportunities.
are we to take it that some people should step in or appoint someone
to do this and limit selections for us all? If, say, a new restaurant
is about to open in town will some people forbid this so as to save
those frustrated folks the trouble of having to cope with the wide
array of choices? Or if someone writes yet another love song or
makes yet another movie is there to be some vice squad on hand to
ban the new stuff to spare us the trouble of making a choice from
among the enlarged set of offerings? Are Professor Schwartz and
his colleagues going to make the decision that certain of those
new songs or movies will not be made? By what right?
suspicion is that Professor Schwartz’s misdirected critique of the
widening range of selections in various realms of human interests
rests, first, on a mistake about the point of it all namely,
to accommodate millions of quite different individuals set to realize
their own objectives. And, second, it aims to promote the idea that
we need some kind of state regulation of such selections, a paternalistic
intrusion, so as to protect us from having to make difficult choices.
Neither is, by any stretch of the imagination, a compelling reason
to limit choice.
him mail] holds
the Freedom Communications Professorship of Free Enterprise and
Business Ethics at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman
University, CA. A Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
University, he is author of 20+ books, most recently, Putting
Humans First: Why We Are Nature's Favorite.
Copyright © 2004 Tibor Machan