NY Times: Choice Is Bad

Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, penned an article for today’s New York Times op-ed section warning against the pitfalls of too much choice:

[T]here is growing evidence that the emotional logic (the psycho-logic) is deeply flawed. Indeed, for many people, increased choice can lead to a decrease in satisfaction. Too many options can result in paralysis, not liberation.

You may want to think of this as the “Moscow on the Hudson” syndrome; in that movie, a Russian refugee has an anxiety attack when asked to go to an American supermarket for coffee … and sees an entire aisle of choices. In fact, Schwartz uses similar examples when making his case:

• Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, psychologists at Columbia and Stanford respectively, have shown that as the number of flavors of jam or varieties of chocolate available to shoppers is increased, the likelihood that they will leave the store without buying either jam or chocolate goes up. …
• In a study that Ms. Iyengar, Rachel Elwork of Columbia and I are working on, we found that as the number of job possibilities available to college graduates goes up, applicants’ satisfaction with the job search process goes down.

Why did the Times decide to print this today, or at all? Well, this isn’t just an exercise in psychology, as the beginning of the article demonstrates:

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Bush elaborated on a theme that is near to his heart: the virtues of personal choice.
“Younger workers should have the opportunity to build a nest egg by saving part of their Social Security taxes in a personal retirement account,” the president said. “We should make the Social Security system a source of ownership for the American people.” Mr. Bush also made clear that “any attempt to limit the choices of our seniors, or to take away their prescription drug coverage under Medicare, will meet my veto.”

Schwartz argues that more personal choice decreases the quality of life, causing anxiety and depression. People are happier, he says, when choices are limited and responsibility for decision-making processes rest elsewhere than completely on the individual. In Schwartz’s view, the sense of missed opportunities puts too great of a stress on an individual, who will likely second-guess their decisions and always wonder if they would have been better off with different decisions.
Schwartz’s solution — no bonus points for you if you saw this coming — is to reduce or eliminate choices, especially in government-entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Nothing better encapsulates latter-day liberalism (which means socialism, as opposed to classic liberalism) than this condescending and patronizing pop-psychology fingerwagging. Choice makes some people miserable, so the solution is to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator so that we can make sure everyone is equally miserable. You can’t decide on a jam when you have 24 choices? Let’s make only six varieties so everyone can feel good about themselves. Unable to analyze various medical plans to determine what’s best for you? No problem — let the experts in the government come up with a single plan. Too many investment choices? Let’s fix it so that there is only one government-controlled investment choice; that way if it tanks, everyone is equally damaged.
All of this mischief comes from a misunderstanding of equality. To most people, it means equality of opportunity and treatment, but to the left, it means equality of results, and that is the essence of socialism. It’s not that we wouldn’t like to see everyone get rewarded equally, but not everyone has equal talent, not all talent is fully realized or even fully utilized, and not all production has equal value. Use jam as an example: most people might be satisfied with only six flavors of jam and may never try all 24. That does not mean that most people wouldn’t enjoy more choice or prefer a flavor not included in someone’s arbitrary selection of the six “allowed” flavors. And in the case of Social Security, the single “choice” given is mandatory extraction of a healthy chunk of individual income placed in a fund that will not even pay back the principal deposited, much less keep up with inflation or grow in any way.
The research Schwartz sites applies more to retail marketing than it does to public policy, and the Times’ publication of this paternalistic propaganda reveals their sympathy to socialism. (Certainly you will have never seen the phrase “choice tyrannizes people more than it liberates them” in a Times article on abortion, where “choice” arguably equals the ability to kill another individual.) It’s designed to appeal to those who are willing to surrender their freedom for the illusion of comfort and tranquility. For me, I’d much rather second-guess myself than allow others to dictate a paucity of options based on their opinion of what’s best for me.