The Terrors of Choice


Apparently launching his own personal effort to spare us all from the "paradox of choice," Barry Schwartz seems to have settled on a formula that allows him to churn out op-eds that have the same soothing monotony as his ideal supermarket shelf. The schtick is pretty straightforward: Pick some public controversy where the value of "choice" is adduced as a reason to support some insufficiently progressive policy, briefly regurgitate some of the familiar arguments against said policy by way of introduction, then bring out the paradox thesis—more choice is actually bad, because our poor brains become overwhelmed by all the options.

The formula's deployed in Schwartz's New York Times op-ed today, though not, alas, with results quite as hilarious as last time around. We can bypass the dumb "what if the markets dip at the exact time you'd most prefer to retire" and the stupendously circular "it's not 'your' money it's our money… once we've taxed it away" and focus on the familiar "choice paralysis" argument. First of all, the upshot seems to be only that faced with too many choices, people will fail to make any choice at all. Since Schwartz seems to think it would be foolish to elect to divert payroll tax into a private account, it's not wholly clear why that's a problem from his perspective. But assuming that it is, the specific evidence he brings to bear—that participation in private pension funds drops two percent for each 10 additional fund options—is so narrow that the objection ends up being the equivalent of a claim that democracy is hopeless because butterfly ballots are confusing. Surely a bright fellow like Schwartz could come up with a way to structure the system in tiers, such that novices would have a small number of easily-selected "defaults" while experienced investors would have access to a wider range of options. (In the same way that someone who finds themselves overwhelmed in the huge Whole Foods can spare themselves choice paralysis by choosing to patronize the smaller corner market.) But then, looking at ways to ameliorate the "paradox of choice," rather than using it as a bludgeon, doesn't appear to be part of the formula.