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The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (Video Lecture)

Barry Schwartz is a sociology professor at Swarthmore College and author of The Paradox of Choice. In this talk, he explains how and why the abundance of consumer choice in modern society is actually making people miserable.

But far from being a litany of despair, his is ultimately a message of hope, and a message implicitly supportive of the Simplicity Movement. Don’t think buying stuff through market transactions is necessarily going to lead to happiness, he is saying. Far from it. The path to true happiness does not consist in the limitless consumption and accumulation of material things. It consists instead in various non-material sources of satisfaction and meaning, like human relationships, creative activity, contemplation, and community engagement.

In short, sociologists like Schwartz explain why, in affluent societies, at least, money and possessions are much less important to human flourishing than people might at first think. There may well be problems with Schwartz’s analysis in places, and perhaps he overstates some issues. But he presents an interesting and provocative case, and he is one of surprisingly few thinkers who are prepared to consider what role politics has in shaping consumption habits in market societies. Food for thought!

4 Responses to “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (Video Lecture)”

  1. Ilya says:

    I dont agree with this. There are limits to our freedom of choice, but he does not truly paint the picture here. What he is saying is authorities should decide for people what is best for them. He is presenting a false dichotomy, marrying freedom solely with consumer choice. True freedom comes from a higher state of consciousness.

  2. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Ilya, thanks for your comment, you raise some interesting points, although the brevity of your comment has left your message a little unclear to me. As I understand him, Schwartz isn’t saying that authorities should decide for people what is best for them. He is saying that unconstrained consumer choice is not synonymous with freedom, and in fact can cause unanticipated problems and inefficiencies, like those he discusses. If that is so, as it seems to be, he suggests that there may need to be a political ‘top down’ response to some of those problems and inefficiencies. There is a risk that politics may go too far in that response – as you imply – but arguably politics currently does not go far enough. I feel that’s an important question to consider, even if Schwartz doesn’t get it all right.

    I agree with the sentiment expressed in your last sentence, however it is an abstract statement that could be interpreted in many different ways, as I’m sure you would agree. Perhaps it is a statement which can be raised for more detailed discussion in future posts…

    Thanks again for taking the time to post a comment.

  3. Bev says:

    I see it differently to Ilya. I believe Schwartz is identifying the cognitive empowerment that can result when we are freed from the actual constraints of having to make too many choices. I think he is showing how ‘too many choices’ are a manipulation by the capitalistic marketing culture. We can choose to be seduced by it or not – he doesn’t therefore deprive us of the right to make choices at all.

    Also I don’t believe he is arguing for a life of no choices, but for a simplified approach of reduced choices where we are in control.We’ve got far too many other exciting cognitive challenges beckoning us than to waste our mental time being disempowered by having to think our way through the ‘too many choices’ of our contemporary marketing culture.

  4. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Bev, thanks for your comment. You provide a very concise statement of the ‘paradox.’ We could think of it this way: We might go to the supermarket and see that there are 20 types of toothpaste to buy, but we aren’t sure which to purchase. Arguably they are all essentially the same product, differentiated only by clever marketing. The ‘freedom to choose’ from 20 types of the same product begins to not look so great from this perspective. This may sound like a small, insignificant example, but when it is multiplied into an entire market economy, ‘freedom of choice’ risks becoming the ‘paradox of choice,’ – a paradox because it starts reducing our freedom, not enhancing it.

    Ilya is probably right to think that there are risks involved in responding to this paradox, but there may well be greater risks in not responding to it.

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