Paradox of choice vs. limiting human freedom Matt 07 Sep 2006

23 comments Latest by Janet

Jared Spool interviews Barry Schwartz:

When you look at Vanguard 401(k) plans in a variety of different employers, where what varies from one employer to the next is the number of mutual fund options that they provide, the more options the employer provides, the less likely people are to choose any of them. Even though not choosing mean passing up significant amounts of matching money from the employer…

In the domain I know best, the world of academic institutions, increasingly, especially in the more selective places, they essentially don’t tell students what to do. They give you this gigantic list of courses, ‘Take 10 of these and you will have met our liberal arts requirement. We don’t care which 10.’ Here are these 18 year olds who don’t know squat, and people who do know something aren’t willing to tell them what they ought to do.”

Equal-time action: There’s also some backlash to Schwartz’ paradox of choice ideas.

Dr. Edward Deci, professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester, and the author of several studies on choice, says, “The optimal number of options to choose from depends on the situation and the person. When you have more time, more information, and a more important decision, you typically would want to consider more options, and some people always want more than other people do. So, with an important decision about retirement, it is something most people would want to spend time on…I am very wary about anyone who wants to take away options from others or limit other people’s opportunities for choice. It amazes me that some psychologists are arguing that we should limit human freedom.”

23 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Dave Walsh 07 Sep 06

It feels like a better light in which to look at this is not questioning more vs. less in terms of options and choices, but rather how you arrive at those choices. When talking about 401(k)s or college courses, the selection may be daunting but with a solid, human process in place, the user can arrive at the perfect selection/combination of choices.

It’s the difference between presenting 100 retirement funds versus guiding the user to the only logical choice among those 100 based on some set of criteria.

We don’t need to reduce offerings, we just need to hold our users hands through the process.

Jamie 07 Sep 06

I think both are correct to some extent. Take for instance someone who leans toward perfectionist tendencies. This person will be crippled from all the choices — have I made the correct choice? what if I regret it? Then there are people who can look at a huge amount of choices and say “this is good enough for me.” and not have any regret.

Maybe we don’t need to reduce our offerings, but we need to put some good filters in place: Good personalized filters….which by the way Amazon does very well.

sandy 07 Sep 06

Are there diminishing marginal returns on choice?

If so, then its a null question to ask : is more choice good or bad.

Aaron Blohowiak 07 Sep 06

the internet pre-google: teh suck.

post-google: ftw!

diff?

excess information suddenly became manageable and navigable.

Mark 07 Sep 06

Great timing with this.

I actually just responded to a topic on a message board with the following:

“In the big picture, we live in a society rife with options, and pondering and considering all those options fills us with reasons to put off getting started on a small little task that could —eek!— prove irrelevant!”

I remember freshman college orientation when they handed you the book with all the elective courses, and you sat in the dining hall surrounded by others and picked things to take. Sure, they had assigned me the 1 or 2 core classes my major required, but in leaving the rest wide open…An ultimately magna cum laude student started his academic career with a measly 12 credits that didn’t accomplish much toward anything he ended up pursuing.

James 07 Sep 06

A common programming principle is that simple things should be simple and difficult/advanced things should be possible.

What is wrong with offering complete control over options, but offering packages of pre-selected options? Those who don’t care can just pick a package and those who want control can select their own options. You can hide advanced option selection as long as those who want them can find them.

random8r 07 Sep 06

The problem is simply that in order to find out what we really want, we have to dig deeply into the problem domain.

One could say that Ruby on Rails robs us of a lot of choice as Application Programmers. It doesn’t, though. It provides a set of pre-made choices, and we’re free to go against the grain of these choices or not.

Simultaneously we’re allowed to make different choices, or “go with the flow” of the easiest “it’s already made for us” routes.

As programmers, we’re totally free - we’re totally at liberty to construct an entirely different framework, or to modify the framework in any way we see fit.

The amount of work required to make those changes, however, and how much money we have to throw at it, will usually dictate how much effort we’re prepared to put into making those choices.

RS 07 Sep 06

An important part of Schwartz’s argument involves who makes the choices, not the number of available options.

The doctor-patient relationships is a good example. Here is an excerpt from an interview on NewsHour:

PAUL SOLMAN: … These days, patients are becoming consumers with the “right to choose” their treatment. Even prescription drug ads are targeted at the public, presumably so we can convince our doctors to prescribe.

AD SPOKESMAN: Ask your doctor…

PAUL SOLMAN: But is this what we really want?

BARRY SCHWARTZ: There’s an extraordinary survey that was done where people were asked: If you were to get cancer, would you want to be in charge of your treatment? And almost 70 percent of people said yes, with the exception of one subgroup: People who actually had cancer, and of those people, 12 percent wanted to be in charge of their treatment.

Aaron Blohowiak 07 Sep 06

the internet pre-google: teh suck.

post-google: ftw!

diff?

excess information suddenly became manageable and navigable.

random8r 07 Sep 06

The other thing, is that limits are quite helpful to make us make conclusions and decisions.

Just look at how many interesting and different game programs there were from Commodore 64 machines. They only had 48kbytes of RAM available to coders. (Well, more if you knew how to switch out the Shadow RAM…) But it’s those sorts of limits that push things to be great.

And limits DO push things to be great. Limitlessness causes humans to flummox, because things ARE limited. However, 12 options is not limitlessness! :-)

The fact that the uni courses were laid out badly and therefore hard to choose from (ie 1000 options in a book isnt’ the best way to provide those choices - obvoiusly a set of 10 “dividing” limiting questions is much better (ie a binary set - 2 to the power of 10 is 1024 choices… makes 10 sets of yes/no questions))… is simply not a good excuse to say that choice needs to be limited further…

If the jam-provider grouped jams better, i’m sure people would buy them more ;-)

User interface design…. ;-)

RHWinslow 07 Sep 06

I generally agree with Mr. Schwartz, but there is a clear difference between education and investing that his argument does not address.

In education, it is great to have so many universities, but it is a shame that they are all so much alike. Each university, by reducing choices for undergraduates, actually creates heterogeneity across the educational landscape.

For example, Columbia University has offered a two year core curriculum since 1919. In contrast, most universities offer largely the same variety of classes, subject to size and general academic orientation. The core curriculum differentiates Columbia along the lines of educational experience, and creates a common foundation upon which students can draw throughout their undergraduate education.

Imagine how different the college application process would be if students applied to schools based on the specific educational experience offered, rather than the generic attributes of size, location, cost and business school rankings. Besides, I believe that most people who choose a career at the age of 18, 19 or 20 choose the wrong one anyway, and a curriculum actually encourages broader exploration for many students.

Limiting investment options within a retirement plan, on the other hand, limits an investor’s ability to diversify and manage risk.

Plans that limit investment options are reinforcing the worst aspect of 401Ks and mutual funds in general - limited investment choices. For an investor with a majority of retirement savings in one of these plans, having only a small set of investments options limits diversification, and thus investment stability. This also limits one’s ability to balance risk against investment horizon, which is critical to retirement investment strategy.

Pete 07 Sep 06

So that rebuttal basically amounts to: Barry Schwartz is a communist who hates America and our freedom.

Jeez, thanks, that was helpful.

I’ve stood in the aisle at some big box supermarket completely overwhelmed, going Peanut butter! I just want to buy some goddamned peanut butter. Why are there 30 varities of peanut butter?!? far too many times than is good for my mental health.

Nate Cavanaugh 07 Sep 06

I think the backlash actually misses the point:
Sometimes MORE choices leads to LESS freedom.

Guess what? I don’t always wan’t to choose. Sometimes, many times, I don’t want it to be my problem.

Do I want my mechanic to consult me on the the brand of gaskets he uses?
Do I want Nike to consult me on the exact placement of the grommets in my shoes?

Sure, choices mean freedom, but overloading a person with choices actually inhibits that freedom by forcing them to spend time making choices that really aren’t of great importance.

What they call “giving people freedom” is many times just laziness and cowardice. They are too lazy, or too afraid because their choice may not be what someone else wants.

Finding the proper balance between the two requires intuition, creativity, intelligence, familiarity with your audience, and the courage to go through with it.

Lara 07 Sep 06

This reminds me of the recent confusion over the new perscription drug benefit choices.

It also reminds me of every time I’ve thought I was being helpful in giving people a variety of ways to use a feature. I could see their eyes glaze over and, although any choice is acceptable, the time it takes to make the choice outstrips the convenience.

I think there always needs to be a value judgement of freedom versus simplicity. Keep the important choices, remove the irrelevant ones.

Steve R. 07 Sep 06

I submit the following hypothesis I found to be true for me: Too much choice is NEVER a problem, as long as sufficient discoverable methods exist that I may intelligently analyze my options.

Bear in mind, humans in their ‘natural’ state - that is, just getting up in the morning, not facong some artificial choice (filling out a form, etc.) - are perfectly capable of deciding among the virtually unlimited choices waking up in the morning allows. We create decision rules and iteratively refine them over our lives.

This ‘Too much choice’ situation reflects either an unfamiliar problem domain (requiring more analysis) or a lazy thinker - and they deserve the consequences of their laziness.

Jan Korbel 08 Sep 06

You can find Barry Schwartz presentation from Pop!Tech 2005 - very good one imo http://www.itconversations.com/shows/detail252.html

Jan Korbel 08 Sep 06

You can find Barry Schwartz presentation from Pop!Tech 2005 - very good one imo http://www.itconversations.com/shows/detail252.html

Johannes 09 Sep 06

As Iīve been working as an advisor for retirement savings probably quite similar to your 401K:s, I can say that it is true that people donīt make choices if there are to many possibilities. And discussing whether freedom of choise is good or bad may be interesting from a philosophic point of view. But considering all those people who will get bad results, I find it quite more interesting to make sure that they do make a choise at all. Sure, thereīs people who can take care of there own investments in a good fashion, but most canīt, and wonīt. And the ones working as advisors are not always that interested in taking care of people with normal income, which makes them the loosers. Of course you can build a good site helping people, like morningstar.com, but most humans are tired sick of thinking of investments bearing fruit 30 years from now. Less choices - makes happier people. In this question. You canīt discuss the ability to choose as one universal question. Whatīs good here isnīt suiting for every other question. You can either be hands-on or philosophical, but to put the two of them together - nah…

Dipesh Batheja 11 Sep 06

What a coincidence. I few days back I had a similar thought about Indian academics. Indian universities don’t give you many options to choose the subjects you want to study in the course you select. There is pretty much a standard predefined list of subjects that you have to study to complete your degree. I somewhere felt that this is kind of restricting where I can’t choose the subjects that I like to study and leave those subjects I don’t. The thought came to me, how good is American academics where you have option to choose what you want to do?

But this discussion has helped me in getting out of a perception and think more in terms of reality. And the reality seems to be that there will always be a group of people who are willing to choose what they want. And there will always be a group that wants somebody else make choices for them and offer them a standard predefined path to follow.

It is a good discussion to dwell upon and figure out some important conclusion from it. The conclusion seems to be that by choosing either of the extremes will not help companies “getting real”. When you are giving lots of options to choose from, it becomes difficult for some people to figure out what is right for them. On the other hand if you put a tight leash on the choices people can have, they might start looking outside of what you can offer as your offering might no more be fulfilling their needs.

So it looks that it is important for companies to understand that benefit lies not in extremes but in middle path. A path where they are letting people to choose what they want to and at the same time offering a standard set of predefined choices. Look at Dell for example; these guys have done a great job in figuring out a middle path. Not only they are offering some standard configurations, but also allow users to configure their systems according to their requirements.
I think this kind of idea is still missing (or perhaps not widely used) from software industry where people are offering either a predefined products configurations or a totally customized software services. It would be great to see how some companies in software business can figure out this middle path model.

Dipesh Batheja 11 Sep 06

What a coincidence. I few days back I had a similar thought about Indian academics. Indian universities don’t give you many options to choose the subjects you want to study in the course you select. There is pretty much a standard predefined list of subjects that you have to study to complete your degree. I somewhere felt that this is kind of restricting where I can’t choose the subjects that I like to study and leave those subjects I don’t. The thought came to me, how good is American academics where you have option to choose what you want to do?

But this discussion has helped me in getting out of a perception and think more in terms of reality. And the reality seems to be that there will always be a group of people who are willing to choose what they want. And there will always be a group that wants somebody else make choices for them and offer them a standard predefined path to follow.

It is a good discussion to dwell upon and figure out some important conclusion from it. The conclusion seems to be that by choosing either of the extremes will not help companies “getting real”. When you are giving lots of options to choose from, it becomes difficult for some people to figure out what is right for them. On the other hand if you put a tight leash on the choices people can have, they might start looking outside of what you can offer as your offering might no more be fulfilling their needs.

So it looks that it is important for companies to understand that benefit lies not in extremes but in middle path. A path where they are letting people to choose what they want to and at the same time offering a standard set of predefined choices. Look at Dell for example; these guys have done a great job in figuring out a middle path. Not only they are offering some standard configurations, but also allow users to configure their systems according to their requirements.
I think this kind of idea is still missing (or perhaps not widely used) from software industry where people are offering either a predefined products configurations or a totally customized software services. It would be great to see how some companies in software business can figure out this middle path model.

Sebastien Orban 14 Sep 06

I know I’m late on the subject, but I’d like to say something about education.
I maybe know what I want to achieve with my study. I probably have a goal. But there’s a great deal of chance that I don’t know HOW and WHAT to study. So if I have to choice in a book how to get to my goal, there’s good chance I’m going to be wrong (I want to be a bussinesman. So I take communication but no statistic and no economy, for example)
My guitar teacher has lot of option to offer. But I don’t do the choice myself : I tell him what I want to do, and he make me a program to get there. I think it’s a great way of doing thing.

Janet 02 Oct 06

It is hard to find a plan that would meet the requriements of all

Post a comment

(Basic HTML is allowed)

NOTE: We'd rather not moderate, but off-topic, blatantly inflammatory, or otherwise inappropriate or vapid comments may be removed. Repeat offenders will be banned from commenting. Let's add value. Thank you.