There is no denying that choice improves the quality of our lives.  It enables us to control our destinies and to come close to getting exactly what we want out of any situation.  Choice is essential to autonomy, which is absolutely fundamental to well-being.  Healthy people want and need to direct their own lives.

On the other hand, the fact that some choice is good doesn’t necessarily mean that more choice is better …

Freedom is essential to self-respect, public participation, mobility, and nourishment, but not all choice enhances freedom.

— Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice; Why More Is Less.

Barry Schwartz went shopping at his local supermarket.  This is what he was confronted with —

  • 85 different varieties and brands of crackers.  Sodium?  Or no?  Fat-free?  Big box or small?  Normal or bite size?  Domestic or import?
  • 285 varieties of cookies.  21 options for chocolate chip cookies alone.
  • 13 sports drinks; 65 box drinks for kids; 85 other flavors and brands of juices, and 75 iced teas and adult drinks.  The tea drinks could be sweetened with sugar or artificial sweetener, or flavored.
  • 95 options in the snack aisle — chips that were taco and potato, ridged and flat, flavored and unflavored, salted and unsalted, high fat, low fat, no fat …

I’ll stop.  He goes on.  For several pages, actually.

We have freedom to choose.  Freedom of choice.  Awesome, right?

Not right; crazy.  Seriously.  And this is only groceries!

Let’s shift gears.  Let’s consider something less tangible than groceries, but no less important: information.  More specifically, educational, instructional material.  Digital, at your fingertips, download-now-at-4G-speed-and-start-your-homework instructional material.

You think there’s a few choices out there in this arena?  Over the next twelve months, do you think the quantity of those choices will increase by a factor of five?  Ten?  Fifty?

Okay, enough of this.

Is it any surprise that we are susceptible to decision fatigue?

Neo was right; in a very real sense, the problem is choice.

Because now, more than ever before, there are real and specific consequences to this proliferation of choice.

One common byproduct is paralysis.  We find it difficult to choose at all.

One study of 401K plans revealed that as the investment options for a 401K increased, the percentage of people choosing to participate in the plan went down.  There was actually a correlation: add a fund, lose a participation percentage point; add another, lose another…  People facing more choices chose not to choose!

You think there’s any implications for product and service design?  Oh boy…

And then there’s the psychological impact when we actually do make a choice!  With all those options …

  • … the odds are raised that we feel regret; the more options there are the easier it is to regret anything at all about the option that we chose…
  • … the odds are raised that we feel a real sense of lost opportunity; we may focus on the features of the options that we didn’t choose, and not feel real good with the choice we made…
  • … the odds are raised that we feel disappointed because all those options escalated our expectations of how satisfied we would be once we made our choice…
  • … the odds are raised that we blame ourselves for not being able to sufficiently process the myriad of choices available to us.

But with every problem there is opportunity, no?  Is there now, paradoxically, opportunity for peace and profit in providing freedom from choice?

Oracle CIO Mark Sunday noted in a presentation earlier this year how a controversial “freedom from choice” approach regarding M&As is a key Oracle tactic in effectively fast-cycling integration…

Can a sales executive that can skillfully limit the choices for her customers actually raise the odds of closing the sale?

Can a software program that can meta organize all that digital instructional content — to make a selection on a specific topic more manageable — produce a stampede of users?

Choice is good, but more choice is not better.

Enter freedom from choice.

Because not all choice enhances freedom.

Oh, the irony!  Deciding to limit freedom can actually be freeing…

Although the prisoners from the last post may not be on board with that sentiment.

But Neo would.

Free your mind!

P.S.:  Watching the video of Barry Schwartz’s TED talk is highly recommended and highly enjoyable!