An excerpt from The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, PhD
Choice and Happiness (Chapter 5)
Freedom and autonomy are critical to our well-being and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.
The Point of Choice
Choice has a clear and powerful instrumental value; it enables people to get what they need and want in life. Whereas many needs are universal (food, shelter, medical care, social support, education, and so on), much of what we need to flourish is highly individualized.
We may need food, but we don’t need Chilean sea bass. We may need shelter, but we don’t all need a screening room, an indoor basketball court, and a six-car garage. These Malibu-mogul appurtenances would mean very little to someone who prefers reading by the woodstove in a cottage in Vermont.
Choice is what enables each person to pursue precisely those objects and activities that best satisfy his or her own preferences within the limits of his or her financial resources. You can be a vegan and I can be a carnivore. You can listen to hip-hop and I can listen to NPR. You can stay single and I can marry. Any time choice is restricted in some way, there is bound to be someone, somewhere, who is deprived of the opportunity to pursue something of personal value.
Over two centuries ago Adam Smith observed that individual freedom of choice ensures the most efficient production and distribution of society’s goods. A competitive market, unhindered by the government and filled with entrepreneurs eager to pinpoint consumers’ needs and desires, will be exquisitely responsive to them. Supple, alert, unfettered by rules and constraints, producers of goods and providers of services will deliver to consumers exactly what they want.
As important as the instrumental value of choice may be, choice reflects another value that might be even more important. Freedom to choose has what might be called expressive value. Choice is what enables us to tell the world who we are and what we care about. This is true of something as superficial as the way we dress. The clothes we choose are a deliberate expression of taste, intended to send a message. “I’m a serious person.” or “I’m a sensible person.” or “I’m rich.” Or maybe even “I wear what I want and I don’t care what you think about it.” To express yourself, you need an adequate range of choices. The same is true of almost every aspect of our lives as choosers. The food we eat, the cars we drive, the houses we live in, the music we listen to, the books we read, the hobbies we pursue, the charities we contribute to, the demonstrations we attend-each of these choices has an expressive function, regardless of its practical importance.
And some choices may have only an expressive function. Take voting for example. Many voters understand that, the 2000 presidential election notwithstanding, a single vote almost never has instrumental significance. One vote is so unlikely to make a difference that it’s hardly worth the inconvenience of walking across the street to the polling place. Yet people do vote, presumably at least in part because of what it says about who they are. Voters take citizenship seriously, they do their duty, and they do not take political freedom for granted.
An illustration of the expressive function of voting is the story of two American political
scientists who were in Europe on election day. They took a three-hour drive together to cast their absentee ballots, knowing they supported opposing candidates and that their votes would cancel each other out.
Every choice we make is a testament to our autonomy, to our sense of self-determination. Almost every social, moral, or political philosopher in the Western tradition since Plato has placed a premium on such autonomy. And each new expansion of choice gives us another opportunity to assert our autonomy, and thus display our character.
But choices have expressive functions only to the extent that we can make them freely. For example, consider the marital vow to stay together “for better for worse, . . . till death us do part” If you have no way to get out of a marriage, marital commitment is not a statement about you; it’s a statement about society. If divorce is legal, but the social and religious sanctions against it are so powerful that anyone who leaves a marriage becomes a pariah, your marital commitment again says more about society than it does about you. But if you live in a society that is almost completely permissive about divorce, honoring your marital vows does reflect on you.
The Value of Autonomy
The value of autonomy is built into the fabric of our legal and moral system. Autonomy is what gives us the license to hold one another morally (and legally) responsible for our actions. It’s the reason we praise individuals for their achievements and also blame them for their failures. There’s not a single aspect of our collective social life that would be recognizable if we abandoned our commitment to autonomy.
But beyond our political, moral, and social reliance on the idea of autonomy, we now know that it also has a profound influence on our psychological well-being. In the 1960s, psychologist Martin Seligman and his collaborators performed an experiment that involved teaching three different groups of animals to jump over a little hurdle from one side of a box to the other to escape or avoid an electric shock. One of the groups was given the task with no prior exposure to such experiments. A second group had already learned to make a different response, in a different setting, to escape from shock.
Seligman and his coworkers expected, and found, that this second group would learn a bit
more quickly than the first, reasoning that some of what they had learned in the first experiment might transfer to the second. The third group of animals, also in a different setting, had been given a series of shocks that could not be escaped by any response.
Remarkably, this third group failed to learn at all. Indeed, many of them essentially had no chance to learn because they didn’t even try to escape from the shocks. These animals became quite passive, lying down and taking the shocks until the researchers mercifully ended the experiment.
Seligman and his colleagues suggested that the animals in this third group had learned from being exposed to inescapable shocks that nothing they did made a difference; that they were essentially helpless when it came to controlling their fate. Like the second group, they had also transferred to the hurdle-jumping situation lessons they had learned before-in this case, learned helplessness.
Seligman’s discovery of learned helplessness has had a monumental impact in many different areas of psychology. Hundreds of studies leave no doubt that we can learn that we don’t have control. And when we do learn this, the consequences can be dire. Learned helplessness can affect future motivation to try. It can affect future ability to detect that you do have control in new situations. It can suppress the activity of the body’s immune system, thereby making helpless organisms vulnerable to a wide variety of diseases. And it can, under the right circumstances, lead to profound, clinical depression. So it is not an exaggeration to say that our most fundamental sense of well-being crucially depends on our having the ability to exert control over our environment and recognizing that we do.
How Helplessness and Choice are Related
Now think about the relation between helplessness and choice. If we have choices in a particular situation, then we should be able to exert control over that situation, and thus we should be protected from helplessness. Only in situations where there is no choice should vulnerability to helplessness appear.
Quite apart from the instrumental benefits of choice-that it enables people to get what they want-and the expressive benefits of choice-that it enables people to say who they are-choice enables people to be actively and effectively engaged in the world, with profound psychological benefits,
At first glance, this may suggest that opportunities for choice should be expanded wherever possible. And because modern American society has done so, feelings of helplessness should now be rare.
ln 1966, and again in 1986, however, pollster Louis Harris asked respondents whether they agreed with a series of statements like “l feel left out of things going on around me” and ‘What I think doesn’t matter anymore.” In 1956, only 9 percent of people felt left out of things going on around them; in 1986, it was 37 percent. In 1966, 36 percent agreed that what they thought didn’t matter; in 1986, 60 percent agreed.
There are two possible explanations for this apparent paradox. The first is that, as the experience of choice and control gets broader and deeper expectations about choice and control may rise to match that experience. As one barrier to autonomy after another gets knocked down, those that remain are, perhaps, more disturbing. Like the mechanical rabbit at the dog-racing track that speeds along just ahead of the dogs no matter how fast they run, aspirations and expectations about control speed ahead of their realization, no matter how liberating the realization becomes.
The second explanation is simply that more choice may not always mean more control. Perhaps there comes a point at which opportunities become so numerous that we feel overwhelmed. Instead of feeling in control, we feel unable to cope. Having the opportunity to choose is no blessing if we feel we do not have the wherewithal to choose wisely.
Remember the survey that asked people whether they would want to choose their mode of treatment if they got cancer? The majority of respondents to that question said yes. But when the same question was asked of people who actually had cancer, the overwhelming majority said no. What looks attractive in prospect doesn’t always look so good in practice. In making a choice that could mean the difference between life and death, figuring out which choice to make becomes a grave burden.
How to be Selective in Exercising Choice
To avoid the escalation of such burdens, we must learn to be selective in exercising our choices. We must decide, individually, when choice really matters and focus our energies there, even if it means letting many other opportunities pass us by. The choice of when to be a chooser may be the most important choice we have to make.
Researchers all over the world have been trying to measure happiness for decades, partly to determine what makes people happy and partly to gauge social progress. Typically, studies of happiness take the form of questionnaires, and measures of happiness- or “subjective well-being,” as it is often called-are derived from answers to lists of questions.
Here is an example: Satisfaction with Life Scale
- In most ways, my life is close to ideal.
- The conditions of my life are excellent.
- I am satisfied with my life.
- So far, I have gotten the important things I want in life.
- lf I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.
(Courtesy of Lawrence Erlbaum Associates)
This is the Satisfaction with Life Scale. Respondents indicate the extent to which they agree with each statement on a 7-point scale, and the sum of those judgments is a measure of subjective wellbeing.
In recent years, researchers have combined these questionnaire responses with other measures of happiness. Study participants walk around with little handheld computers, and periodically, the computers beep at them. In response to the beep, the participants are supposed to answer a series of questions displayed on the computer screen.
The benefit of this technique-known as the “experience sampling method”-is that rather than relying on people to be able to look back accurately on how they’ve been feeling over a period of months, the computer asks them to assess how they’re feeling at that very moment. Their answers to the questions over the course of the study-days, weeks, or even months-are then aggregated.
Results using this technique have shown a rather consistent relation between respondents’ answers to questions in the moment and their answers to questions on surveys like the Satisfaction with Life Scale So there is some reason for confidence that studies using surveys really are telling us how people feel about their lives.
And one of the things these surveys tell us is that, not surprisingly, people in rich counties are happier than people in poor countries. Obviously, money matters. But what these surveys also reveal is that money doesn’t matter as much as you might think. Once a society’s level of per capita wealth crosses a threshold from poverty to adequate subsistence, further increases in national wealth have almost no effect on happiness.
You find as many happy people in Poland as in Japan, for example, even though the average Japanese is almost ten times richer than the average Pole. And Poles are much happier than Hungarians (and Icelandics much happier than Americans) despite similar levels of wealth.
If, instead of looking at happiness across nations at a given time, we look within a nation at different times, we find the same story. In the last forty years, the per capita income of Americans (adjusted for inflation) has more than doubled. The percentage of homes with dishwashers has increased from 9 percent to 50 percent. The percentage of homes with clothes dryers has increased from 20 percent to 70 percent. The percentage of homes with air-conditioning has increased from 15 percent to 73 percent.
Does this mean we have more happy people? Not at all. Even more striking, in Japan, per capita wealth has increased by a factor of five in the last forty years, again with no measurable increase in the level of individual happiness.
Close Social Relations
But if money doesn’t do it for people, what does? What seems to be the most important factor in providing happiness is close social relations. People who are married, who have good friends, and who are close to their families are happier than those who are not. People who participate in religious communities are happier than those who do not. Being connected to others seems to be much more important to subjective well-being than being rich.
But a word of caution is in order. We know with certainty that there is a relation between being able to connect socially and happy. It is less clear, however, which is the cause and which is the effect. Miserable people are surely less likely than happy people to have close friends, devoted family, and enduring marriages. So it is at least possible that happiness comes first and close relations come second. What seems likely to me is that the causality works both ways: happy people attract others to them, and being with others makes people happy.
How Social Ties Impact Choice and Autonomy
In the context of this discussion of choice and autonomy, it is also important to note that, in many ways, social ties actually decrease freedom, choice, and autonomy. Marriage, for example, is a commitment to a particular other person that curtails freedom of choice of sexual and even emotional partners. And serious friendship imposes a lasting hold on you. To be someone’s friend is to undertake weighty responsibilities and obligations that at times may limit your own freedom.
The same is true, obviously, of family. And to a large extent, the same is true of involvement with religious institutions. Most religious institutions call on their members to live their lives in a certain way and to take responsibility for the wellbeing of their fellow congregants. So, counterintuitive as it may appear, what seems to contribute most to happiness binds us rather than liberates us. How can this notion be reconciled with the popular belief that freedom of choice leads to fulfillment?
Two recently published books explore this incongruity, One, by psychologist David Myers, is called The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty. The other, by political scientist Robert Lane, is called The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies. Both books point out how the growth of material affluence has not brought with it an increase in subjective well-being.
But they go further. Both books argue that we are actually experiencing a fairly significant decrease in wellbeing. As Myers graphically puts it since 1960 in the U.S., the divorce rate has doubled, the teen suicide rate has tripled, the recorded violent crime rate has quadrupled, the prison population has quintupled, the percentage of babies born to unmarried parents has sextupled, and the rate of cohabitation without marriage (which actually is a pretty good predictor of eventual divorce) has increased sevenfold.
This is clearly not a mark of improved well-being. And as Lane points out, the rate of serious clinical depression has more than tripled over the last two generations, and increased by perhaps a factor of ten from 1900 to 2000. All of which contributes to, and is exacerbated by, a massive increase in levels of stress, stress that in turn contributes to hypertension and heart disease, lowers immune responsiveness, and causes anxiety and dissatisfaction.
But, as Lane put it very simply, in addition to the other factors contributing to our modern malaise: There are too many life choices . . , without concern for the resulting overload . . . and the lack of constraint by custom. . . that is, demands to discover or create an identity rather than to accept a given identity.
The rise in the frequency of depression is especially telling. While I will discuss depression at greater length in Chapter 10, I want to point out an important paradox. Earlier in the chapter I discussed Martin Seligman’s work on learned helplessness and its relation to depression. That work strongly suggests that the more control people have, the less helpless, and thus the less depressed, they will be.
I have also suggested that in modern societies we have more choice, and thus more control, than people have ever had before. Put these two pieces of information together, and it might lead you to expect that depression is going the way of polio, with autonomy and choice as the psychological vaccines.
Instead, we are experiencing depression in epidemic numbers. Is Seligman’s theory about helplessness and depression wrong? I don’t think so; there is much evidence that strongly supports it. Then can it be that freedom of choice is not all it’s cracked up to be?
Lane writes that we are paying for increased affluence and increased freedom with a substantial decrease in the quality and quantity of social relations. We earn more and. spend more, but we spend less time with others. More than a quarter of Americans report being lonely, and loneliness seems to come not from being alone, but from lack of intimacy.
We spend less time visiting with neighbors. We spend less time visiting with our parents, and much less time visiting with other relatives. And once again, this phenomenon adds to our burden of choice. As Lane writes: “What was once given by neighborhood and work now must be achieved; people have had to make their own friends…and actively cultivate their own family connections.” In other words, our social fabric is no longer a birthright but has become a series of deliberate and demanding choices.
The Time Problem
Being socially connected takes time. First, it takes time to form close connections. To form a real friendship with someone, or to develop a romantic attachment, we have to get to know the other person quite deeply. Only in Hollywood do such attachments come instantly and effortlessly. And close attachment, not acquaintanceship, is what people most want and need.
Second, when we establish these deep connections, we have to devote time to maintaining them. When family, friends, fellow congregants need us, we have to be there. When disagreements or conflicts arise, we have to stay in the game and work them out. And the needs of friends and family don’t arise on a convenient schedule, to be penciled into our day planner or Palm Pilot. They come when they come, and we have to be ready to respond.
Who has this kind of time? Who has the flexibility and breathing room in life’s regularly scheduled activities to be there when needed without paying a heavy price in stress and distraction? Not me.
Time is the ultimate scarce resource, and for some reason, even as one “time-saving” bit of technology after another comes our way, the burdens on our time seem to increase. Again, it is my contention that a major contributor to this time burden is the vastly greater number of choices we find ourselves preparing for, making, reevaluating, and perhaps regretting.
Should you book a table at your favorite Italian place or that new bistro? Should you rent the cottage on the lake or take the plunge and go to Tuscany? Time to refinance again? Stick with your Internet provider or go with a new direct service line? Move some stocks? Change your health insurance? Get a better rate on your credit card? Try that new herbal remedy? Time spent dealing with choice is time taken away from being a good friend, a good spouse, a good parent, and a good congregant
Freedom or Commitment
Establishing and maintaining meaningful social relations requires a willingness to be bound or constrained by them, even when dissatisfied. Once people make commitments to others, options close.
Economist and historian Albert Hirschman, in his book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, suggested that people have two general classes of responses available when they are unhappy. They can exit the situation, or they can protest and give voice to their concerns.
In the marketplace, exit is the characteristic response to dissatisfaction. If a restaurant no longer pleases us, we go to another. If our once favorite breakfast cereal gets too expensive, we switch to a different brand, If our favorite vacation spot gets too crowded, we find a new one. One of the principal virtues of free-market choice is that it gives people the opportunity to express their displeasure by exit.
Social relations are different. We don’t dismiss lovers,, or communities the way we dismiss restaurants, cereals, or vacation spots. Treating people in this way is unseemly at best and reprehensible at worst.
Instead, we usually give voice to our displeasure, hoping to influence our lover, friend, or community. And even when these efforts fail, we feel bound to keep trying. Exit, or abandonment, is the response of last resort.
Most people find it extremely challenging to balance the conflicting impulses of freedom of choice on the one hand and loyalty and commitment on the other. Each person is expected to figure out this balance individually. Those who value freedom of choice and movement will tend to stay away from entangling relationships; those who value stability and loyalty will seek them.
Many will cobble together some mixture of these two modes of social engagement, If we fail in establishing exactly the kinds of social relations we want, we will feel that we have only ourselves to blame. And many times we will fail.
Social institutions could ease the burden on individuals by establishing constraints that, while open to transformation, could not be violated willy-nilly by each person as he chooses. With clearer “rules of the game” for us to live by-constraints that speciff how much of life each of us should devote to ourselves and what our obligations to family, friends, and community should be- much of the onus for making these decisions would be lifted.
But the price of accepting constraints imposed by social institutions is a restriction on individual freedom. Is it a price worth paying? A society that allows us to answer this question individually has already given us an answer, for by giving people the choice, it has opted for freedom. And a society that does not allow us to answer this question individually has also given an answer, opting for constraints.
But if unrestricted freedom can impede the individual’s pursuit of what he or she values most then it may be that some restrictions make everyone better off. And if “constraint” sometimes affords a kind of liberation while “freedom” affords a kind of enslavement, then people would be wise to seek out some measure of appropriate constraint.
A way of easing the burden that freedom of choice imposes is to make decisions about when to make decisions. These are what Cass Sunstein and Edna Ullmann-Margalit call second- order decisions.
One kind of second-order decision is the decision to follow a rule. If buckling your seat belt is a rule, you will always buckle up, and the issue of whether ifs worth the trouble for a one-mile trip to the market just won’t arise. If you adopt the rule that you will never cheat on your partner, you will eliminate countless painful and tempting decisions that might confront you later on.
Having the discipline to live by the rules you make for yourself is, of course, another matter, but one thing is for sure: following rules eliminates troublesome choices in your daily life, each time you get into a car or each time you go to a cocktail party.
Presumptions are less stringent than rules. Presumptions are like the default settings on computer applications. When I set my word processor to use “Times 12” as the default font, I don’t have to think about it. When, once in a while, I’m doing something special, such as preparing an overhead to be projected in a large auditorium, I can deviate from the default. But 99.9 percent of the time, my decision is made for me.
Standards are even less rigorous than rules or presumptions. When we establish a standard, we are essentially dividing the world of options into two categories: options that meet the standard and options that don’t.
Then, when we have to make a choice, we need only investigate the options within category number one. As we saw in the last chapter, it’s a lot easier to decide whether something is good enough (to satisfice) than it is to decide whether something is the best (to maximize). This is especially true if we combine standards with routines or habits. Deciding that once we find something that meets our standards we’ll stick with it essentially takes away that area of decision making.
Friendships often sustain themselves on a combination of standards and routines. We are drawn to people who meet our standards of intelligence, kindness, character, loyalty, wit), and then we stick with them. We don’t make a choice, every day, about whether to maintain the friendship; we just do.
We don’t ask ourselves whether we would get more out of a friendship with Mary than we do out of our friendship with Jane. There are countless “Marys” out there, and if we did ask ourselves this kind of question, we’d be continually choosing whether to maintain our friendships.
So by using rules, presumptions, standards, and routines to constrain ourselves and limit the decisions we face, we can make life more manageable, which gives us more time to devote ourselves to other people and to the decisions that we can’t or don’t want to avoid. While each second-order decision has a price-each involves passing up opportunities for something better-we could not get through a day without them.
At the turn of the twentieth century, biologist Jacob von Uexkull, observing how evolution shaped organisms so that their perceptual and behavioral abilities were precisely attuned to their survival, remarked that “security is more important than wealth.”
In other words, a squirrel in the wild doesn’t have the “wealth” of experience and of choice that people do when they decide to take a walk in the forest. What the squirrel does have is the “security” that it will notice what matters most and know how to do what it needs to do to survive, because biology supplies the needed constraints on choice. It helps organisms recognize food, mates, predators, and other dangers, and it supplies them with a small set of activities appropriate for obtaining what they truly need.
For people, such constraints have to come from culture. Some cultures have constraints in oppressive abundance, while our consumer culture has strived for decades to jettison as many constraints as possible. As I have argued from the outset, oppression can exist at either extreme of the continuum.
Wanting and Liking
Given the high value we place on autonomy and freedom of choice, you would think that having it would make us happier. Usually, the things we want are the things we like, the things that give us pleasure.
But powerful evidence has recently appeared that “wanting” ‘and “liking” are served by fundamentally different brain systems-systems that often do, but certainly need not work together. Drug addicts desperately “want” their drugs (such is the nature of addiction), even after they reach a point in their addiction where ingesting the drugs provides very little pleasure. And stimulation of certain areas of the brain can get rats to “want” food, though they show no evidence that they “enjoy” it even as they eat it.
So wanting and liking can, under some circumstances, be dissociated, just as there is often a disconnect between our anticipated preferences and the options we actually choose.
Remember that 65 percent of people who didn’t have cancer said that if they got it, they would prefer to choose their treatment Of those who actually had cancer, 88 percent said they would prefer not to choose. Apparently we always think we want choice, but when we actually get it we may not like it. Meanwhile, the need to choose in ever more aspects of life causes us more distress than we realize.
About the Author: Barry Schwartz is a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania. He has been there since receiving his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 197l. Schwartz has written The Battle for Human Nature, and The Costs of Living, among other books and many articles in academic journals. In 2004, Schwartz published The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.