Friday, 25 November 2011

The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, by Barry Schwartz


by Barry Schwartz (Harper Perennial, 2005)

I had such high hopes for this book.  I was expecting it to focus largely on consumer culture, and to have some profound 'light bulb' moments that would really make me stop and think.  Not that it didn't try, but unfortunately it never really hit the spot for me.

In actual fact, Schwartz focuses more on the psychological than the sociological, and widens his arguments to cover the choices we make in everything from education and careers to houses and cars to jeans and jam.  The prevailing theme of the book is how the growth of choice in modern society, and the emphasis on the individual as the maker of choices, has taken us beyond freedom and into the realms of tyranny.  Choice no longer liberates us; it spins us into its web and holds us there, stuck in our own uncertainty and fear.  We no longer choose between three pairs of jeans in a store - we choose between ten different fits, three different leg lengths and four different colours.  The same decision, however trivial it might be, now has higher stakes and many more alternatives to consider.  This, Schwartz argues, plunges us into a constant whirlwind of regret, comparison, uncertainty, disappointment and even depression.

I think Schwartz provides a compelling and relatable case against excessive choice, which certainly made me stop to ponder just how much of our time we devote to comparing, researching and choosing between different options in even the most inconsequential areas of our lives.  His eleven methods for reducing the negative effects of choice make sense, though for me as one of his 'satisficers' (people happy with 'good enough', as opposed to 'maximisers' who make their task more difficult by always looking for the best) I didn't feel I really had too much to learn from them.

My main problem with the book was that it was just too long.  There was a lot of repetition - of ideas, anecdotes and examples - and the middle of the book really started to drag.  Cutting the whole thing down by about 50 pages and sharpening the pace would have improved the reading experience without damaging the argument.  I also noticed from the notes at the back that some of Schwartz's examples had been directly lifted from other people's work, without it being evident in the main body of text (the notes aren't numbered), which I thought was a bit sneaky.  To sum up, maximisers and perfectionists might learn something important from this book, but satisficers - I wouldn't bother.  It'd be like preaching to the choir anyway, so use your superior powers of choice to take you on to the next book!


  1. While reading your review, I kept thinking back to when I read this book. All I could remember is that I read it while on a trip to Florida in 2009. Isn't it strange that I can remember when and where but not what I thought of it?

    Thankfully, I posted a short review on Goodreads. It turns out that I gave it five stars and thoroughly enjoyed it! Reading my review brought the book back to me and I realized that I can see exactly where you are coming from in your review and if I had read the book now instead of two years ago, I would have agreed with you wholeheartedly. Isn't it funny how time and life experiences can change your thoughts on a book?

    Thanks for posting this excellent review!

    Grace at Feeding My Book Addiction

  2. Wow Grace, I think this might be the most thoughtful response I've ever had to a review!

    I definitely agree that as our lives/experiences/outlooks change our response to books will undoubtedly change too. A few years ago I was a total perfectionist and a worrier and would probably have been bowled over by Schwartz's premise. But now, a few years wiser and a lot more relaxed about things that don't matter (though still a bit of a worrier!) I felt like it was just rehashing - at length - something I'd already learned for myself.

  3. The proliferation of choice has certainly made choosing anything more difficult, but don't think I'd want to read a whole book on the subject. Thanks for doing it for us!

  4. It had such great reviews, too... I'd have no problem recommending it to people with an interest in modern society and psychology, IF it was about a third shorter. Oh well.

  5. I read this book in May this year and agree with your thoughts. Schwartz had an interesting premise but the book got bogged down by his research and became repetitive. A good edit would have made it much more compelling.


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