Choice as distraction

Today's talk is on the paradox of choice. I wrote about the debilitating aspects in my own life some time ago and how it really cramped my decision-making process. He explores this idea explicitly and talks about the negative aspects of choice.

Here is the traditional dogma of choice:

maximize welfare = maximize freedom
more freedom = more choice
more choice = more welfare

The four problems of excessive choice (though 1 and 2 are inextricably linked):
  • regret and anticipated regret  
  • opportunity costs increase
  • escalation of expectations
  • self-blame
He does not mean to say that choice is bad, but there is a point of diminishing return, and eventually negative returns....

We have dozens of salad dressings, toothpastes and soap in even the most basic grocery store. He suggests that rather than offering better decisions and more options, we tend to weigh these against any potential purchase we make (thus creating the possibility of future regret). This hypothetical anguish ends up outweighing the potential benefit from any purchase and thus we avoid making it in the first place. Even when we make a good decision, the attractive features (opportunity cost) of other options will always nag at us and detract from the enjoyment of what we chose. 

I know I personally felt the same difficulty when selecting a new cell phone. There is near limitless variety -  OS, camera quality (and front or rear)/flash, storage space, battery life, network carrier and speed, screen type, size and weight. Then factor in price as well as what releases are pending, and what might come in the next six months. It is an incredibly complex optimization of ultility and price - how does one value each aspect? I think companies like Apple have realized this. They have one product (and a few legacy products for sale) at any give time for each product line. This simplifies the decision making process for consumers. It is a good strategy if you don't mind "paying for quality" because you want things that "just work." Even though Apple products often cost twice as much as competing products there is little regret with the purchase as new models are only released (approximately) annually. The lesson: make a good product and don't worry about customizing it too much. K.S.S. (keep it simple stupid)

He also talks about how adding options tends to lead to increased expectations (which lead to eventual disappointment). He relays a story about buying new jeans. There used to be one type of jeans, but now there was a seemingly endless variety - bootcut, straight leg, low rise, different colors, button down, zip up, ect. Even though he left with the best fitting jeans he ever had, he was still disappointed. He attributes this to the fact that because of these options, he expected it to be perfect and if it wasn't, he was the one to blame. When there was only one option, it was the world's fault. However, now that we make the decision, then we feel personally responsibly for the outcome.

He then moves this analysis to the modern world. He talks about how people look wistfully at the past. The reason they do this is because the were offered the possibility of a pleasant surprise. People didn't expect as much. Today, the best we can hope for is to have our expectations me. The cure? He only half jokingly says "low expectations." This clearly has implications for the big decisions we make: marriage, jobs, when we decide to get married, the faith (or lack of) we chose.

Online dating is a good example of the detriment of excessive choice. I think it is a good case study for how product design could potentially make people happier. It makes me think that sites might be better if they went ahead and limited their scope and culled out poor choices (or choices that were out of reach - they could have user rated images so that 10's aren't available to 5's. This could also be done on body types. They could do similar tests to generally asses IQ/verbal reasoning/general education level). People also use the sites for competing purposes (sex, companionship, marriage, curiosity, boredom). If you were required to select a specific purpose, it would preemptively eliminate users who might dangle like candy in front of your face- better yet, the site might eliminate these options altogether. This would increase the signal to noise ratio. It would allow users to focus on what they truly want. I know if I often found myself distracted by girls who excelled in one particular aspect (intelligence, income, attractiveness, warmth, common hobbies/lifestyle) but were in no way a good potential mate. Unfortunately this only made the problem of finding someone I was happy with more difficult. I found myself comparing whoever I was with to the individual who excelled in one area I valued. I ended up trying to seek a made-to-order girlfriend from all of the pieces. Obviously, things don't work like that.

Most interesting (and troublesome) about this talk was his quixotic solution. He attributes choice to excessive wealth (which is true) and his solution is redistribution to poorer nations (who suffer from the opposite problem of too little choice). While I do agree with charity and I  think it would improve their lives, I doubt this was his intention and I doubt it would make ours any better.

What we need (at least in commerce) are better filters, more information and firmer expectations about what we won't accept. Price is a good example. When I search on eBay I do not distract myself (and in some ways do not expose myself) to choices that exceed the amount of money I have allocated for a given purchase. When I shop on Amazon, I immediately filter by 4-star items (this does all three - I can read reviews (information), it is a good proxy for quality, and limits my prospective choices my a large margin). I have rarely regretted any 4-star purchase that was within my price threshold on Amazon (even if I ended up not using it that much).

In everyday life this might extend to where I look for jobs. I am constantly bombarded with emails from a staffing company that places investment professionals all across the country. I see these wonderful job descriptions in places I would never live. These jobs will likely never be available in SC. I want to do the same thing with employment that I do with online dating - piece together a job description, income level and geography into my ideal). I need to limit my exposure to these options that are not a good "potential mates." I am also not qualified for some of these positions (even if I think I would enjoy them). I should not be teasing myself with unrealistic opportunity.

There is also a bit of paradox within this solution. I see two approaches. One is to become rigid and exclusive. Cut this out. Ignore this option. Focus on this or that. The other is the completely opposite approach and not worry about choice at all (so long as my needs are met). To be more accepting. Less critical. Expect less. Default to minimalism. Be grateful. While I think the first is more logical and manageable, my gut tells me it won't make me happy (I will still regret) and the second is where happiness is to be found.

Wherever you go, there you are....