Barry Schwartz’s “The Paradox of Choice”: Book Review

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > Category

Overall Rating: ★★★★ (4/7) (acceptable for its category)

Per-Hour Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★ (4/7)

Readability: ★★★★★★ (6/7)

Challenge Level: 2/5 (Easy) | 240 pages ex-notes (304 official)

Blurb/Description: Psychologist Barry Schwartz argues, counterintuitively but correctly, that having more choices can make us unhappier and lead us to make worse decisions.

Summary: After seeing this referenced in several books I’d read, I was really excited to read The Paradox of Choice.  I was expecting a deep exploration of a novel topic.

I ended up being really disappointed for a few reasons that I’ll discuss in lowlights: but summarily, there’s not a lot “new” in the book behind the headline, and most of the little that is new can be intuited.  

Additionally, it’s worth noting that whether or not you’ll get value out of this book depends heavily on how you make choices to begin with.  If you’re already a “satisficer” – i.e., someone who doesn’t agonize about making decisions and recognizes that the emotional/cognitive opportunity cost of worrying about the possibility of unknown better options far outweighs the actual likely benefits to be had from scouring the ends of the earth for those options – then most of this book will seem fairly obvious and intuitive.  

If you are, however, a “maximizer” like my mom – i.e. you agonize over every little decision because you’re worried about getting it wrong and there being something better out there – then you will probably benefit from this book.  

So, in terms of rating, it’s a 3 (mediocre) for satisficers and a 5 (standout) for maximizers, averaged out to a 4 assuming a 50/50 distribution across the reading population.  This would make a good gift for someone who has trouble making decisions.

Barry Schwartz seems thoughtful and I think most of his takeaways are spot-on. However, they’re relatively intuitive and the book doesn’t go deep enough into choice specifically – most of the content is a rehash of cognitive-bias material you can find explained better elsewhere. Image source: Amazon

Highlights: There were a few new/interesting angles, such as the “peak/end” memory angle – i.e. that we remember the peak (or trough) as well as the end of experiences, and so, counterintuitively, prefer things that are more bad (or less good) but end on a higher note than the alternative.  He also does a good job tying the idea of “regret” into the cognitive bias framework, although most of this is fairly intuitive.

Lowlights: First, a substantial portion of the book is a rehash of basic cognitive-bias stuff (loss aversion, sunk costs, commitment bias, hyperbolic discounting, contrast bias, etc) in a way that isn’t particularly unique or insightful.  I’m usually a fan of brevity, but as with Hallinan’s Why We Make Mistakes, The Paradox of Choice loses a lot of important nuance in its condensed/abridged presentation of the relevant cognitive biases.

For example, Schwartz cites Thaler’s “Misbehaving (review + notes) in the sources, and Misbehaving provides much more thorough (and funnier) coverage of topics like loss aversion, hyperbolic discounting, and contrast bias.  Similarly, Shawn Achor’s work on the hedonic treadmill in The Happiness Advantage (review + notes) and Before Happiness (review + notes) was much more enjoyable for me as well.

I have to admit that there’s probably a big path-dependency angle here since I’m already very familiar with the concepts, but I think I’m being directionally objective.  Whereas books like Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down (review + notes) manage to have a thoroughly new and fresh twist that I derive value from, this one doesn’t.

Second, the actual discussion of choice (both in terms of how people make choices, and how they should) doesn’t go far enough beyond the headline and the often-quoted 6 vs. 30 jars-of-jam experiment, in my view.  There are also some portions of the book that are difficult to interpret – for example, Schwartz notes a piece of research suggesting that analyzing our decisions can make us less happy, but then backs off and admits that going with our gut isn’t his recommendation… and then I’m left not really knowing where to go.

Mental Model / ART Thinking Points: loss aversion, contrast bias, endowment effect, hedonic treadmill, opportunity costs, sunk costs

Instead, you should read:

Richard Thaler’s “Misbehaving (review + notes) and/or Sunstein/Thaler’s “Nudge (review + notes).  Misbehaving, cited by Schwartz in the notes, provides a much funnier, more thorough/nuanced/insightful review of cognitive biases and the research thereupon.  Meanwhile, S/T in Nudge discuss extensively the concept of “choice architecture,” and how we can nudge ourselves (and others) into making better choices – S/T, for example, go deeper into the Medicare Part D and 401(k) issues that Schwartz mentions.

Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage (review + notes) and Before Happiness (review + notes).  Schwartz references positive psychology research (ex. Martin Seligman) fairly frequently; I’ve read a lot of the positive psychology literature and I think Achor summarizes it in the most useful and compelling way.

Youngme Moon’s Different (review).  Moon, a professor at HBS, looks at the “five hundred kinds of potato chips” issue from the opposite side: i.e. that of a business seeking differentiation.  She argues, compellingly, that trying to compete via incremental differentiation leads – unintentionally – to homogeneity, and businesses need to approach differentiation differently.

You should buy a copy of “The Paradox of Choice” if: you, or someone you care about, agonizes over making decisions because they’re a “maximizer” seeking the best possible option and scared of regretting their decision.

Reading Tips: If you’re going to read this book, skip/skim chapter 2, as Schwartz is a bit of a man-with-a-hammer and wantonly goes about applying his theory to every aspect of life, including some like workplace attire and working from home where it’s a real stretch.  Also skip or skim the earlier sections on cognitive biases if you’re already familiar with the literature, because there’s little new and insightful here until he starts talking about regret.


Reread Value: 2/5 (Low)


First Read: 2018

Last Read: 2018

Number of Times Read: 1

Planning to Read Again?: no


Review Date: 2018

Notes Date: 2018