Atanu Dey On India's Development

Life is All About Choices — and Paradoxes

| 3 Comments

Life is also about the paradox of choice. Economists obsess about choice because at the heart of it all, we have to choose among competing wants since we are bound by limits. Being able to choose freely is a good thing but even with choice, you could have too much of a good thing.

A Scientific American article exploring the matter of choice and what it means makes interesting reading. You have to choose whether to read it — The Tyranny of Choice (pdf) — or go do something else.

The article by Barry Schwartz notes, “it seems that as society grows wealthier and people become freer to do whatever they want, they get less happy. In an era of ever greater personal autonomy, choice and control, what could account for this degree of misery?”

A SURFEIT OF alternatives can cause distress in yet another way: by raising expectations. In the fall of 1999 the New York Times and CBS News asked teenagers to compare their experiences with those their parents had growing up. Fifty percent of children from affluent households said their lives were harder. When questioned further, these adolescents talked about high expectations, both their own and their parents’. They talked about “too muchness”: too many activities, too many consumer choices, too much to learn. As one commentator put it, “Children feel the pressure … to be sure they don’t slide back. Everything’s about going forward. . . . Falling back is the American nightmare.” So if your perch is high, you have much further to fall than if your perch is low.

. . . The news I have reported is not good. We get what we say we want, only to discover that what we want does not satisfy us to the degree that we expect. Does all this mean that we would all be better off if our choices were severely restricted, even eliminated? I do not think so. The relation between choice and wellbeing is complicated. A life without significant choice would be unlivable. Being able to choose has enormous important positive effects on us. But only up to a point. As the number of choices we face increases, the psychological benefits we derive start to level off.

Worth pondering.

  • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

    For a couple of months, my blog was redirected to the Asian Correspondent site. In January 2010, I figured that it is best if I don’t continue to do the redirection.

    The posts I made at AC, therefore, do not show up in this blog’s archive. I have decided to repost those posts here.

    This particular post is from Dec 13, 2009.

  • Visesh Chari

    Here’s the related video of a talk he gave on ted

    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice.html

    Visesh

  • Kaushik

    Yes, this is true. I wonder why you had not raised this point earlier, Atanu. This should be a lesson for those clamouring for more and more choices, especially free marketeers. More and more choices only confuse and make one indecisive. Human beings are happiest with limited choices. On a different note, Atanu, why not blog on subjects from Behavioural economics. It deals with a lot of these issues. I read Dan Ariely’s book on the subject and found it fascinating.
    Atanu, this is just what I feel. Somebody should do research on evolution and economics. There are obvious parallels and they have been pointed out. In the end, life itself is a paradox. Desire causes suffering, but without desire there would be no life itself. I guess as you are interested in Buddhism and Brahminism (Classical Hinduism), this would not seem strange to you.