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The Best of TED: The paradox of choice

By Brian | July 7, 2010 | Share on Facebook

Here’s another installment of my Best of TED series, in which I share talks from the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference that have struck me over the years as particularly insightful or fascinating.

In today’s installment, author Barry Schwartz discusses what he calls “the official dogma:”

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. 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.

As you might imagine, he then goes on to offer a very convincing argument that this isn’t true. The more choices we have, Mr. Schwartz tells us, the more paralyzed we become. He gives many examples, but my favorite is this one:

I wear jeans almost all the time. And there was a time when jeans came in one flavor, and you bought them, and they fit like crap, and they were incredibly uncomfortable, and if you wore them long enough and washed them enough times, they started to feel OK. So I went to replace my jeans after years and years of wearing these old ones, and I said, “You know, 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, you want tapered, blah 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 makes similar points about how the presence of smartphones give us the choice to work, even when we’re at our kids’ soccer games, or how people with more mutual funds to choose from tend to participate less in their company’s 401(k) plan.

The talk reminded me of another Mr. Schwartz – Stephen Schwartz – who wrote, among other things, a Broadway musical called Pippin, about the son of Charlemagne, who spends his life searching for total fulfillment. In the end, he winds up married to a simple farm girl with a young son, and he sings:

Rivers belong where they can ramble
Eagles belong where they can fly.

[But] I’m not a river or a giant bird
That soars to the sea
And if I’m never tied to anything
I’ll never be free.

I’ll encourage you to watch the entire video. Unfortunately, as both Mr. Schwartz’s might tell us, it’s your choice…

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