Risks, Realizations, and Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice

People mistook the pervasiveness of newspaper stories about homicides, accidents, or fires—vivid, salient, and easily available to memory—as a sign of the frequency of the events these stories profiled. This distortion causes us to miscalculate dramatically the various risks we face in life, and thus contributes to some very bad choices.

That’s from Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, a book that’s probably easy to misinterpret as arguing that more choices are always bad or always make us unhappy. But it does provide a lot of useful explanation of why many people disproportionately fear crime, which is falling (that link is merely one of the first found in an Internet search; the general trend is well-known), as opposed to, say, car crashes or heart disease, neither of which are as memorable.

Still, I don’t think all choices are bad ones, but the cognitive effort necessary to make a choice should probably make us more wary of doing things like shopping than we, as a society, appear to be. Mental investments in one field (i.e. deciphering features, costs, etc.) might take away from those in another, as cognitive load theory implies. Overall, I think The Paradox of Choice can be usefully combined with a couple of other sources, most notably Paul Graham’s essay Stuff, about the perils of possessiveness in an age of abundance, and The Myth of the Rational Voter, which the New Yorker discusses here. Our (collective) beliefs aren’t very rational, whether you call them a mistake of “pervasiveness,” as Schwartz does, or something else. It’s unfortunate that Schwartz doesn’t go in more depth about the “very bad choices” we might make as a result of availability heuristics.

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