An Embarrassment of Riches Makes ‘Maximizers’ of Us All

The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, by Barry Schwartz. Ecco/HarperCollins, 288 pages, $23.95.

If only every choice weren’t so momentous. The waiter arrives, the menu is presented. The gnocchi will surely be delicious, but the spaghetti al limone suits your mood. And yet you’re in Rome, it’s winter and spaghetti al limone is really Amalfi’s dish, best served in sunshine by the sea. What kind of rube will this fine waiter take you for? Your appetite is gone now, you feel doomed, and your date wishes he weren’t stuck with such a loser.

The freedom to choose brings you little freedom. In fact, it fills you with unspeakable anguish. Can you be helped? Psychologist Barry Schwartz would like to think so. In The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less , Mr. Schwartz, a professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore, offers 11 thoughtful steps toward relief from what he believes to be our national misery: too much choice. Want a cell phone? Well, this one is tri-band, this one sends pictures, and this one comes in a pretty box. Or maybe some new shampoo? Fine! Is your hair dry? Thick? Thin? Dull? Would you like it to smell like flowers or fruit? And then there are vital choices-about medical care, education, marriage, career, even faith-which arise nearly every day. If the abundance of options boggles the mind, Mr. Schwartz suggests, think what it’s done to the soul.

So Mr. Schwartz sets out to “explore and explain this ‘darker side’ of freedom”: Despite what we may think, “choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.” When the good doctor offers strategies “for fighting back against the tyranny of overwhelming choices,” you believe he wants to help. Fortunately, Mr. Schwartz’s sincerity is appealing and engaging-because as a writer, he’s jargon-happy and mind-numbingly dull.

This is the kind of plodding paragraph you’ll meet on nearly every page: “When considering a decision involving complex possibilities, the fact that there is no one option that is best in all respects will induce people to consider the opportunity costs associated with choosing the best option. And the more options there are, the more likely it is that there will be some that are better in some respects than the chosen one. So opportunity costs will mount as the number of options increases, and as opportunity costs mount, so will regret.” Occasionally, he livens things up with hypothetical situations that provide exquisitely pure flashbacks to SAT anxiety: “If there are six hundred sick people, saving two hundred (choice A in the first problem) …. ” Yikes.

Where do you read a book like this? At your favorite café? (I feel the dread building: cappuccino or a pot of tea?) By the pool? (Should I pack Tracy Chevalier or Barry Schwartz?) But readers of The Paradox of Choice won’t choose this book-a profound task in itself, given the choices crowding the shelves in the Psychology section of most bookstores-so as to be entertained. They will, like me, come seeking advice on how to change their behavior.

Think of what you could accomplish, of the places you could visit and the love you could share if your mind were not consumed with the distinction between “aspirin … caplets, capsules, and tablets.” Our televisions are equipped with “picture-in-picture” technology, so that we can choose to watch two shows at the same time. E-mail, always accessible, forces people to “face decisions every minute of every day about whether or not to be working.” Mr. Schwartz provides detailed and depressing descriptions of the headaches and panic associated with buying a car, investing in the market or researching insurance providers.

And yet, despite the professor’s nerdy delivery, The Paradox of Choice is genuine and useful. The book is well-reasoned and solidly researched. Mr. Schwartz considers Adam Smith, Camus and Plato in trying to determine when enough ought to be enough. But he relies most heavily on the Nobel Prize–winning economist and psychologist Herbert Simon, who introduced the concept of “satisficing” in the 1950′s. Satisficers, you will learn in this book, are the happier opposites of “maximizers.” Huh? Simply put, Hamlet was a maximizer. Maximizers want only the very best option; their standards for what makes something “the very best” vary with public opinion; and they will second-guess their every decision for fear of making the wrong one. On the other side of the equation, there are characters like TV’s Olivia Walton, the ur-satisficer: She had only reasonable expectations, understood what would meet her clearly defined high standards while also accepting the realities of her Depression-era world, and was delighted when things worked out better than she had hoped.

By nature, the satisficers have it easy; they welcome limits and rejoice in serendipity. The maximizers have a tougher time; Mr. Schwartz is writing for them. “I believe that learning how to satisfice is an important step not only in coping with a world of choice but in simply enjoying life.” The problem, writes Mr. Schwartz, is that “our culture sanctifies freedom of choice so profoundly that the benefits of infinite options seem self-evident.”

Our constant hunger for individuality, Mr. Schwartz believes, has become a vexing social problem-far more distressing than our choice of salad dressings. Excessive individuality-imagine, for instance, a radical feminist Methodist with socialist leanings-distresses the social fabric; a self-defined “me” makes participation in a community of “us” less likely.

Mr. Schwartz demonstrates that we live in a “Can I get my deposit back?” world where few decisions are considered irreversible, where “the modern university is a kind of intellectual shopping mall,” and where “‘religion consumers shop” in the “market” for a faith offering “just the form of community that gives us what we want out of religion.” Even our notion of loyalty has been distorted by the blasé way in which we switch jobs: “individuals who have worked for the same employer for five years are regarded with suspicion.” And what of tying the knot? “Whereas delaying marriage … would seem to promote self-discovery, this freedom and self-exploration seems to leave many people feeling more lost than found.”

So, fellow Hamlets, to read or not to read? I say skip to the last chapter, in which Mr. Schwartz offers some useful suggestions on how to think about choice. (“Choose when to choose” is my favorite.)

For all his wisdom, Mr. Schwartz can be too simplistic. “If you adopt the rule,” he writes, “that you will never cheat on your partner, you will eliminate countless painful and tempting decisions that might confront you later on.” Whatever. Despite the occasional lapse into nonsense, there’s value here.

I guarantee it: On the very night I finished The Paradox of Choice -feeling like a laboratory rat too long in the maze-something happened which made me realize the value of the book. I met friends for dinner at a trattoria where Ada, the proprietor, chooses what you eat. Out came the white wine (we wanted red) and then the pasta (I’d had pasta for lunch). As my friends began to complain, I gleefully tucked into my penne. The newly born satisficer in me thought, “What the hell? Let her choose! No way will Ada do me wrong.”

Josh Patner contributes to Elle and Slate from Rome.