Option Overload

Choked by choice?

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"So I said I want a pair of jeans, size 32-28," author Barry Schwartz said recently on PBS, "and the salesperson said, 'Well, do you want slim fit, relaxed fit, easy fit? Do you want wide boot cut, wide leg, peg leg? Do you want acid washed, stone washed, regular?' You know, I realized that I was spending an hour trying to do something that used to take me five minutes."

Schwartz, a psychologist, has concluded that proliferating consumer choice is an unrecognized mental health problem. According to his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (Ecco), the costs to consumers of market choices can outweigh the apparent benefits, and not merely in terms of time. If you are a "satisficer," you'll search around in the market for a "good enough" choice that meets your needs, and you'll probably be happy with it. But if you are a "maximizer" seeking the "best" choice, the market will overwhelm you.

Capitalism has been attacked for the supposedly superfluous products it generates (as in "Who needs 25 different flavors of oatmeal?"). Schwartz's approach, which has drawn attention from both highbrow and lowbrow media outlets, is almost refreshing, because it suggests that the critique is degenerating (or evolving) into service journalism.

The argument about efficiency and waste has been displaced by advice for people who have trouble making choices. Schwartz's advice: If you're a maximizer, give it up. Some decisions are worth more time and effort than others; you should choose between choices. If you think such advice will help you, Schwartz's publisher will take your $23.95.