Dr. Barry Schwartz, professor and author, visited Ouachita Baptist University Oct. 14 as part of the Birkett Williams lecture series. He spoke on his new book “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,” which addresses the value of choice and the psychological problems it can cause.
Schwartz, the Dorwin P. Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Penn., began writing his book two years ago but began researching it almost 10 years ago.
“Schwartz’s book attempts to document the harmful social-psychological effects of having too much choice, whether in the realm of groceries, appliances or health-care,” said Dr. Mark Edwards, OBU assistant professor of history. Edwards said he was interested in inviting Schwartz to OBU because he felt his argument against the abundance of choice is important to anyone participating in today’s economy.
In a dinner preceding the lecture, Schwartz noted that the central tenant of economics is power which is expressed through the value of choice. He added that many Americans believe that “choice is the highest good.”
During the lecture, Schwartz identified the syllogism of choice: more choice means more freedom and more freedom means more well-being. Therefore, more choice means more well-being. “It is uncontroversial in the United States,” he said.
Schwartz said he disagreed with this argument, explaining, “When people choose from a large set of alternatives they are less satisfied than they are when they choose from a smaller set of alternatives.”
The two groups Schwartz outlined that deal with choice differently are “maximizers” and “satisficers.” Maximizers try to search through every option exhaustively and are less satisfied with their outcome than satisficers who think, “Good enough is good enough,” he said. He also noted that “being a maximizer is not good for your psychological health.”
Although Americans believe more choice is liberating and will therefore bring them happiness, Schwartz said he finds that people are more pleased with constraints such as close relationships.
“If there are no limits, life is unlivable,” he said. An endless amount of choices either freezes people to not make a decision or they make the wrong choice. “Instead of choosing on the basis of what matters, they choose on the basis of what is easiest to evaluate,” he explained.
Ouachita’s Birkett Williams lecture series was established in 1977 through a gift from the late Birkett L. Williams, a 1910 Ouachita graduate. His generous endowment established the lectures as an opportunity to extend the concepts of a liberal arts education beyond the classroom by bringing renowned scholars and public figures to Ouachita’s campus.
by Rebecca Rambin