Schwartz on choice Notes for November 19

Main points

We discussed the central chapters of Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice. Like Dworkin’s paper, this book addresses the relationship between freedom and well-being. Also like Dworkin’s paper, its theme is that the expansion of choice can have negative effects on well-being.

Some things I did not expect

I would have expected the argument to lead to a conclusion hostile to markets. My thinking went like this: “markets are all about consumer choice, so if choice is a bad thing, markets must be too.” But Prof. Brown quickly convinced me otherwise. There are lots of market mechanisms to reduce choices. That was the upshot of her example about the services that sell menus and shopping lists. How about that?

Another thing I expected was that the theme of the book would be quantitative: is more choice better than less? But our discussion revealed that this is only one part of it. The broader point of the book has to do with the effort we put into making choices. Schwartz’s point is that we would be better off as satisficers than maximizers. One consequence of that would be that we would generally not attempt to multiply the number of options at our disposal. Rather, we would make good enough decisions and decline to return to them.

Finally, I expected that the book would be hostile towards the sort of position that Mill defended in On Liberty. But instead I found some evidence that would have helped Mill to make his point. Specifically, the examples meant to illustrate our aversion to regret help to explain why one of Mill’s critical assumptions is true. I’m thinking of the examples involving people who buy the same cars as their neighbors own and Mill’s assumption that people are conformists. The theory illustrated by the former supplies an explanation of the latter.

So I was pleasantly surprised by the book and our discussion of it.

On the other hand

I think some of the arguments we have seen about the negative relationship between well-being and making choices are overstated. Specifically, they don’t take into account how people would feel if they did not have choices.

For example, I think we hold ourselves responsible for things going badly whether we can point to specific choices or not. If your marriage turns out poorly or your child has congenital problems, your mind will search the past for the mistakes that led to this. In some cultures, people attribute their misfortune to the judgement of a supernatural being. In other words, you’re going to feel lousy no matter what. If there’s a specific choice you can point to, that’s what you’ll fixate on. But if there isn’t, you’ll still find a way to blame yourself.

Even so, I don’t think this observation threatens Dworkin and Schwartz’s general points.

And one not so pleasant thing

This has nothing to do with Schwartz’s argument but we did spend a lot of time talking about learned helplessness and the Seligman studies. So I’ll share the fruits of another one of my obsessions.

Seligman’s work formed the theory behind the torture regime that the US employed against people it thought were working for Al Qadea back in the “dark side” years. Jane Mayer is the go-to source on this period. Her reporting is collected in her book The Dark Side. She summarized what she knows about the use of Seligman’s work in an interview with Harper’s in 2008.

I think that these methods of interrogation have been abandoned. But we don’t really know. (And it’s not obvious that using drones to blow up suspected members of Al Qaeda is the morally superior alternative to abducting and torturing them.)

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, & Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2012. It was posted November 19, 2012.
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