Multitudes In the Valley of Decision

Why would anyone choose to believe researchers who say you can have too much freedom?


"There may be a point when choice tyrannizes people more than it liberates them," declared a New York Times op/ed last week. The author was Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore College.

Schwartz, author of a recent book called The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less that pushes this notion, hooked his piece on President Bush's argument in the State of the Union address that "problems in education, health care, and a host of other issues can be addressed in large measure by expanding the options available to people." Schwartz relies on the work of Sheena Iyengar, an associate professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia University's business school, to buttress his assertion that choice can be a stone drag.

Iyengar is the author of a fascinating article from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, "When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?" In that paper, she details the results of three studies that compared how people behaved in situations of extensive choice vs. ones of limited choice.

In one study, people shopping in Draeger's, a high-end supermarket in Stanford, Calif., encountered a tasting booth displaying exotic jams. In one case, they were offered six different jams to taste and in another a selection of 24. Once they'd tasted the jams they were given $1 off coupons for the spreads. Thirty percent of those offered a choice of six jams to taste purchased a jar, while only 3 percent of those offered a choice of 24 jams bought any. Apparently, confronting 24 jams is just too much for most people.

Iyengar's second study involved the standard lab rats of psychology, undergraduates. She found that students were more likely to write a short essay for extra credit if they could choose among six topics rather than 30. And in her final study, students were asked to pick what they thought would be the best tasting among clearly labeled Godiva chocolates. With stunning obviousness, she found "participants offered extensive choices also reported finding the decision-making process to be more difficult than participants offered more limited choices." However, she also found that "participants encountering extensive options reported enjoying the decision-making process significantly more than the participants who encountered limited options." In other words, pain in the ass though it may be, more choice is still most people's preference when it comes to chocolates.

Iyengar's research seems to lead to the conclusion that people prefer more choices to fewer and simultaneously find it more difficult and frustrating to sort through those choices. Why is it difficult and frustrating? Because as economics has long taught there are transaction costs for nearly every human activity, and among the most prominent of such costs are search and information costs. Finding information is not free. At the very least the process costs you time that could otherwise be spent doing something else.

Markets and modern technologies regularly reduce such costs, and thus minimize the downside of more choices. Marketers who make it easier for us to choose their products are rewarded. Think how much easier it is to find the best prices for hotels or airfare, reviews for a restaurant in nearly any city, a home loan, and prices and options for many other objects and services with a plethora of choices available to us, thanks to the Internet.

Cato Institute Vice President David Boaz once captured some of the joys and frustrations of choice: "When I go to the supermarket, I encounter a veritable cornucopia of food—from milk and bread to Wolfgang Puck's Spago Pizza and fresh kiwis from New Zealand. The average supermarket today has 30,000 items, double the number just 10 years ago. Like most shoppers, I take this abundance for granted. I stand in the middle of this culinary festival and say something like, 'I can't believe this crummy store doesn't have Diet Caffeine-free Cherry Coke in 12-ounce cans!'"

Professor Schwartz once noted disapprovingly in his 1994 book The Costs of Living: How Market Freedom Erodes the Best Things in Life, that as the freedom of modern Americans expands, we become more dependent on institutions and other people. That's right—we gain more freedom to do what we want by depending upon other people to do for us the things we don't want to do. Thanks to restaurants I don't have to cook at home every night. Thanks to farmers I don't have to grow my own vegetables. Thanks to dentists I don't have to fill my own teeth. You get the idea. The increasingly interdependent modern world continually lifts constraints that once bound our ancestors.

In his New York Times op/ed Professor Schwartz concludes "that sound public policy simply cannot consist of throwing an ever greater menu of options at the American people." One suspects that his unspoken converse is that sound public policy consists of the government restricting options and forcing Americans to do what people like Professor Schwartz think is good for them. Such choice-restricting policies have included Prohibition, the drug war, wage-price controls, publicly financed education, bankrupt Social Security and Medicare systems, and the soon-to-be-launched war on obesity, among others.

The ideal would be a society in which people who want more choices (frustrating or not) can have them while others can simultaneously choose to limit their own choices. For example, both a Hollywood libertine and an Old Order Amish can choose how they want to live and both proudly call themselves Americans. That should be the kind of choice we can all manage to cope with.