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The Freedom Of Choice – The Coaching Room

The paradox of choice | Barry Schwartz

The following article is derived from the accompanying video. It is provided as an additional resource for your reading convenience


In this Ted Talk, psychologist Barry Schwartz opens by saying, “I want to start with what I call the “official dogma.” The official dogma of what? The official dogma of all Western industrial societies. And the official dogma runs like this: if we are interested in maximizing the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximize individual freedom. The reason for this is both that freedom is in and of itself good, valuable, worthwhile, essential to being human. And because if people have freedom, then each of us can act on our own to do the things that will maximize our welfare, and no one has to decide on our behalf.”


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“The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice. The more choice people have, the more freedom they have, and the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have. This, I think, is so deeply embedded in the water supply that it wouldn’t occur to anyone to question it. And it’s also deeply embedded in our lives, Schwartz says.

I’ll give you some examples of what modern progress has made possible for us. This is my supermarket. Not such a big one. I want to say just a word about salad dressing. 175 salad dressings in my supermarket, if you don’t count the 10 extra-virgin olive oils and 12 balsamic vinegars you could buy to make a very large number of your own salad dressings, in the off-chance that none of the 175 the store has on offer suit you”, Schwartz tells his audience.


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“So this is what the supermarket is like. And then you go to the consumer electronics store to set up a stereo system –speakers, CD player,  tuner, amplifier –and in this one single consumer electronics store, there are that many stereo systems. We can construct six-and-a-half-million different stereo systems out of the components that are on offer in one store. Whenever you’re choosing one thing, you’re choosing not to do other things that may have lots of attractive features, and it’s going to make what you’re doing less attractive. “ Schwartz says.

He explains, “The  escalation of expectations hit me when I went to replace my jeans. I wear jeans almost all the time. There was a time when jeans came in one flavor, and you bought them, and they fit like crap, they were incredibly uncomfortable, if you wore them and washed them enough times, they started to feel OK. I went to replace my jeans after years of wearing these old ones and I said, “I want a pair of jeans. Here’s my size.” And the shopkeeper said, “Do you want slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit? You want button fly or zipper fly? You want stonewashed or acid-washed? Do you want them distressed? You want boot cut, tapered, blah blah.” On and on he went. My jaw dropped. And after I recovered, I said, ‘I want the kind that used to be the only kind.’”

“He had no idea what that was, so I spent an hour trying on all these damn jeans, and I walked out of the store — truth! –with the best-fitting jeans I had ever had. I did better. All this choice made it possible for me to do better. But –I felt worse” Schwartz shares.

“The reason I felt worse is that, with all of these options available, my expectations about how good a pair of jeans should be went up. I had very low, no particular expectations when they only came in one flavor. When they came in 100 flavors, damn it, one of them should’ve been perfect. And what I got was good, but it wasn’t perfect. And so I compared what I got to what I expected, and what I got was disappointing in comparison to what I expected. Adding options to people’s lives can’t help but increase the expectations people have about how good those options will be. And what that’s going to produce is less satisfaction with results, even when they’re good results”, Schwartz shares to his Ted Talk audience.


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Schwartz concludes his talk by saying, “ You can be anything you want to be — no limits You’re supposed to read this cartoon, and, being a sophisticated person, say, “Ah! What does this fish know? You know, nothing is possible in this fishbowl.” Impoverished imagination, a myopic view of the world — and that’s the way I read it at first. The more I thought about it, however, the more I came to the view that this fish knows something. Because the truth of the matter is that if you shatter the fishbowl so that everything is possible, you don’t have freedom. You have paralysis. If you shatter this fishbowl so that everything is possible, you decrease satisfaction. You increase paralysis, and you decrease satisfaction. Everybody needs a fishbowl. This one is almost certainly too limited — perhaps even for the fish, certainly for us. But the absence of some metaphorical fishbowl is a recipe for misery, and, I suspect, disaster. Thank you very much.”


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Barry Schwartz is an American psychologist. He is the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College.


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