Saturday, April 4, 2009

Maximizer suffering from Decision Paralysis

I recently finished a great read: The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz (not related). It was one of those books where I found myself thinking "Whoa this is soo true" every 10 minutes. The idea is that while freedom and choice are critical principles to happiness in our society, an abundance of choice can lead to severe unhappiness. He argues that the more choice there is, the more time spent on making the choices, the more trade-offs, the more self-doubt, regret and ultimately dissatsifaction. He calls those of us who put the most pressure on ourselves to seek the best "Maximizers."

Maximizers spend a great deal of time and effort on the search, reading labels, checking out consumer magazines, and trying new products. Worse, after making a selection, they are nagged by he options they haven't had time to investigate. In the end, they are likely to get less satisfaction out of the exquisite choices they make.

I found this hitting home hard. Most recently I've been furnishing my apartment, and have been doing hours of online browsing over everything from hand towels to couches. The search continues for many things, and those that I have purchased, very few am I completely pleased with knowing that I could have probably found a more comfortable armchair or a rug that looked a bit better in the space.

Unfortunately maximization is built into my genes: the example that kept coming to mind in reading this book is the typical Schwartz family restaurant market survey. On every family vacation I can remember, we set out to look for a restaurant excited and hungry, and we walk around town, looking at menus and peering into restaurants wondering which one we should eat at. In a family of 4 maximizers, its very unlikely that we would ALL think that one place was the best, and we usually end up spending way too much time looking around, talking to each other about what we like, and at somebody's second (or 22nd) choice, fatigued and hungry. While the meal is usually pretty good, having spent so much effort investigating, its often hard to enjoy completely with at least one person at the table wondering whether we should have eaten somewhere else. (
Maximizers also like to have their choices validated by others, and when sitting at a table of maximizers with slightly different taste bud preferences, this is always a challenge.)

Barry Schwartz leaves a couple of recommendations for the Schwartz family such as trying to impose constraint on choices and making decisions non-reversible (less regret). I think the most important lesson for a hard-wired maximizer like myself, though, was to just be self- aware and to recognize situations where I'm over thinking decisions enough to remove myself from them.

Just did a Google search on him and found he was at Google right before I started, can't believe I missed him! Check out his talk below and you can probably skip reading the book:

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