the paradox of choice book summary

Book Summary: The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

The Book in Three Sentences

In this book summary of The Paradox of Choice, you’ll learn that everyday decisions are more complex than ever due to the overabundance of options. We think that having more choices derives in more satisfaction, but in the long run, it leads to paralysis, anxiety, and stress. Our obsession with choices became a problem rather than a solution.

The Paradox of Choice Summary


Whenever we go to a store to buy something, we have an overwhelming number of options to choose from. Having numerous options gives people variety, but it creates a new problem: buying things is a time-consuming project that drains your energy and generates self-doubt, anxiety, and dread. We associate having more choices with autonomy, control, and freedom, but having too many options overloads us.

Part I: When We Choose

Chapter 1: Let’s Go Shopping

The variety of the same type of products you have access to nowadays is incredible. The average supermarket has tens of thousands of products to choose from and new products are added on a regular basis. Making a mistake when buying an item at your local supermarket won’t have serious repercussions, but buying the wrong gadget can. Buying the wrong computer or phone is one of the worst mistakes you can make because they’re expensive items and you don’t replace them often. But these aren’t the only decisions we have to make. There are many options around education (universities, colleges, professors, classes, and majors) entertainment (channels, movies, and subscription services) and thanks to technology, the number of options keeps growing and growing.

We spend a lot of time shopping, but there are so many options to choose from that choosing takes more and more effort on our part. This happens because we’re constantly examining every possibility so that we can get the best thing. This happens for several reasons. First, advertisers do a good job of promoting their products. Second, we’re constantly comparing ourselves to others, so if we see someone with a thin and expensive laptop, we want that too. Third, we underestimate the time and effort that going through numerous alternatives has.

Chapter 2: New Choices

For a long time, people didn’t have many choices because a handful of monopolies controlled most services, products, and goods. At some point, new companies emerged and consumer options grew exponentially. This meant better prices and services, but it also meant that consumers had to spend more time and energy educating themselves to choose the best option. This is now true for basic services, as well as health insurance, retirement plans, medical care, cosmetic surgery, employment opportunities, religion, place of residence, and whether to have children or not. As one might imagine, making the wrong choice in some of these can lead to disastrous consequences.

Our existence is defined by the choices we make and we’ve never faced as many choices as we do now. Over the course of any day, we make thousands of choices, and our routines can become automatic so that we don’t realize there are alternatives. Going through most choices automatically is a good thing because being deliberate about everything would be unbearable.

Part II: How We Choose

Chapter 3: Deciding and Choosing

Making the right decision is difficult because different parameters come into play. To make a good decision, you have to consider these steps:

  1. Determine your goal
  2. Judge the importance of your goals
  3. Consider the options
  4. Determine the likelihood that each option will meet its goals
  5. Pick the right option
  6. Use the consequences of your choice to change goals or to evaluate future options

How something makes us feel is called experience utility, but before we can even remember something, we first have to choose it. We choose something because of how we think it’s going to make us feel. This is what some call expected utility. Once we have that experience, we remember it and it becomes a remembered utility. Knowing what we want happens when the three utilities align. But in a world that offers more and more options, determining accurate goals is getting difficult and often leads to disappointment.

Gathering information involves reviewing our past experiences, as well as those of other people. Additionally, we can use other resources such as the internet or ads, but not all of that information is reliable. The amount of ads the average person is exposed to is incredible and ads work. Becoming familiar with something makes you like that thing more than unfamiliar ones. The tool we rely on the most, the internet, has problems of its own. Anyone with a computer and a connection can write a review, so a lot of times, information is missing, misleading, or inaccurate.

To make a choice, we now have to evaluate the information. With this in mind, we should take into account a series of variables:

  • Availability: People have a tendency to give unwarranted weight to some kind of information. This is called availability heuristic. This means that the more available a piece of information is, we think the more frequently we must have seen it. In other words, we assume that the more frequent an experience has been, the more available it is in our memory. Taking this into account, the ads you see and the stories you read can affect your views, so to avoid making mistakes, we should use diverse sources of information.
  • Anchoring: When you compare items, the standard you use is the anchor. To determine if an item is the right thing or too expensive, you must use context. This usually comes in the form of a similarly priced item that you use to determine what’s right for you. Some stores sell items at a high price but then put them on sale to give the impression you’re getting a big discount. In this example, the original price is the anchor you use to compare to the sale price.
  • Frames and accounts: Language also influences decisions. This often comes in the form of big signs with the words “sale” or “discount” written on them. This is called framing. On the other hand, psychological accounts refer to the context around our choices. Even if the money involved in two separate situations is the same, we make different choices because we interpret them differently.
  • Frames and Prospects: Prospect theory is a framework that tries to explain how we judge the options we have and make decisions according to them. This framework explains how we get less and less satisfaction from positive events. This is also known as the law of diminishing marginal utility in economics. Recurring losses hurt less and less. The author calls this decreasing marginal disutility of losses. It’s worth pointing out that the feeling of losing a sum of money is more intense than gaining that same out. This is referred to as loss aversion. Similarly, the Endowment Effect refers to the feeling of ownership you feel toward something. Even if you just acquired something, giving it up means a loss. In a way, this explains why companies give money-back guarantees. Psychologically, we’re predisposed to feel a loss when we have to give up a product, even if we get our money back. Another phenomenon when we talk about loss aversion is sunk cost. If you buy an uncomfortable pair of shoes, you’re likely to keep them even if you don’t wear them. This is because the money you paid for those shoes is perceived as a loss and we hate losses.

To conclude, the mistakes related to the choices we make have consequences. The more time and effort it takes us to choose something, the more satisfied we want to be with the results. But as more options come up, mistakes hurt us a lot.

The overwhelming number of choices can turn us from choosers into pickers. Choosing takes effort. It’s about considering what’s important to you and involves thinking about the potential consequences. Choosing also involves awareness. Picking, on the other hand, refers to just grabbing something. The problem is that some decisions are more important than others and we can’t always pick. Whether we like it or not, sometimes we have to choose.

Chapter 4: When Only the Best Will Do

To choose well, you first have to understand your goals. Your first choice is between “best” and “good enough”. For this purpose, the author makes a distinction between maximizers and satisficers. Maximizing involves looking at all the possibilities until you find the best option. Satisficing is when you settle for a thing that’s good enough and you ignore alternatives that could be better. This is about having standards and rules and once you find something that meets those standards, you get it and stop looking.

Maximizing takes a lot of time and effort and even when you make a choice, you feel bad about the ones you didn’t research. In the end, maximizers are often unsatisfied, a form of regret often called buyer’s remorse. Considering the overwhelming number of options at our disposal, satisficing is the best strategy. Maximizers are often less happy than satisficers, but more importantly, the difference between the “best” and “good enough” isn’t that meaningful. In other words, maximizers don’t make better decisions than satisficers.

Maximizing and perfectionism aren’t the same thing. Perfectionists have high standards, but they never expect to meet them. Maximizers, on the other hand, expect to meet their high standards.

There are profound disadvantages and tenuous benefits to maximizing. So if that’s the case, why would anyone maximize? Most maximizers aren’t aware of it. Also, wanting the best is the same as being successful, so in a way, maximizers want social status. Unfortunately, the market offers so many options that they turn satisficers into maximizers.

Part III: Why We Suffer

Chapter 5: Choice and Happiness

We need freedom and autonomy to be happy and choice gives us that. That said, there is such a thing as having too much choice and that doesn’t lead to more freedom and autonomy, but the opposite. Choice lets us get what we want and need. Naturally, a lot of those needs are essential (food, shelter, clothes, or education), but this can easily get out of hand. We need food, but we don’t need extravagant dishes. We need shelter, but not mansions. Our freedom to choose is called expressive value because that’s how we transmit who we are and what matters to us and to express ourselves we need options.

What’s the relationship between choice and happiness? Money makes us happy, but only when it helps us cover our basic needs. Past a certain point, money doesn’t increase our happiness. The happiest people on the planet are those who are part of a community. Being connected to others is more important than having a lot of money. Interestingly, strong social ties limit your freedom and autonomy. For example, marriage is all about committing to one person, so you can’t pursue additional sexual partners. Likewise, having lasting friendships takes time and effort, so there’s a limit to the number of serious friends you can have.

One of the best ways to make decisions is through second-order decisions, these are rules we follow without thinking about them too much. For example, you buckle your seatbelt as soon as you get to your car. By making up random rules, you eliminate all of the painful decisions you might encounter in the future. Presumptions are less strict than rules. These are defaults you use most of the time but might reconsider changing them at some point. Finally, standards are even less strict than rules and presumptions. This is about dividing our options into two: those that meet our standards and those that don’t. So as a way to save ourselves time and effort, we only explore those options that belong to the former category.

Once we choose something we’d like to implement on a regular basis, it becomes part of our routine. This is about automating a portion of our lives. So when we have a friendship, we don’t have to question whether we want that person to be part of our lives or not, we just accept that as a fact. In conclusion, using rules, presumptions, standards, and routines make our life more manageable.

Chapter 6: Missed Opportunities

Deciding between different options can be painful because each alternative has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. In some cases, making a decision involves tradeoffs. Doing research complicates things even more because it brings up additional information that you haven’t considered. In the end, we must embrace the fact that there are always tradeoffs. Tradeoffs are unavoidable. They are part of having abundant choices, but they come with psychological consequences. Tradeoffs affect our decisions and the level of satisfaction we get from the decisions we make.

When we choose something, there are “costs” to ignoring all of the potential alternatives. Those are called opportunity costs. In other words, for every advantage an opportunity has, it comes with its own disadvantages. This often leads to imagining an option that has all the features we want but doesn’t exist. This makes us even less satisfied with the option we end up going with. Again, having greater variety makes us less happy. Also, in most cases, there isn’t an objective option that’s better than everything else. In the end, the quality of our choices comes down to subjective experience.

Confronting tradeoffs makes us unhappy and undecided. As a result, a lot of people postpone making decisions or avoid them altogether. Our mood also affects our decisions. Being in a good mood allows us to think better because we’re open to more possibilities. The more options we have access to, the less satisfied we’ll be when we finally make a decision.

The higher the stakes for a decision, the more we need to justify it. This also leads to a feeling of dissatisfaction afterward and it would explain why people avoid committing to things. In a way, people are feeling more lost, even when they have access to endless opportunities. This is a recent phenomenon though.

For the longest time, people only faced a few choices and opportunity costs. Not that long ago, we lived in a world of scarcity because there were few opportunities. This tells us that we may be biologically unprepared for the endless choices of the modern world. Babies and toddlers, for instance, have few decisions to make and when they do, they come in binary terms (such as “Do you want some juice?” or “Do you want to go to the park?”). As they grow older though, kids are paralyzed by choice because they see not choosing as a loss.

Even choices that are reversible come at a psychological price. Having the option to return something, leaves people less satisfied. This happens because you keep considering the alternatives even when you’ve made a decision. Since the choice is reversible, it means you can still change your mind.

Chapter 7: “If Only…”: The Problem of Regret

When a decision doesn’t turn out how you expected or you find a better alternative, you’re likely to feel regret. Postdecision regret (also known as buyer’s remorse) happens after experiencing the results of a decision. Anticipated regret, on the other hand, happens before you make a decision. Both kinds of regret negatively affect us from a psychological standpoint.

When we imagine a different outcome or when we consider all the possible actions we could have taken, we’re engaging in counterfactual thinking. This was an integral part of our survival millions of years ago but now leads to regret and a vicious circle of negative emotions. When it comes to counterfactual thinking, there’s a distinction to be made between upward and downward counterfactuals. The former leads to imaginary situations that are better than what actually happened. The latter are imaginary situations that are worse. Downward counterfactuals give us both satisfaction and gratitude, but people only produce them when asked to do so. Ideally, we’d engage with both counterfactuals on a regular basis.

Regret aversion refers to our tendency to avoid regret. We do this by avoiding certain comparisons or by inaction inertia which is not doing anything at all.

Sunk costs also play a role when it comes to regret. If you pay full price for an item, you’re more likely to use it because that would entail a loss. In this example, the person should be considering the satisfaction they get out of the item in question, not using it to avoid regret. In other words, the initial investment determines the use you get out of said item.

The fewer options we have, the less regret we feel. If you’re a maximizer, the only weapon against regret is perfection and to achieve it, you might need to go over an endless stream of alternatives. Satisficers, on the other hand, are fine with good enough and see perfection as something unnecessary.

The point of regret is taking decisions seriously and remembering the mistakes we make along the way so that we don’t make them again in the future. Regret can help us mitigate the consequences of a poor decision. Finally, regret shows others we care about what happened and that we’ll pay more attention in the future.

Chapter 8: Why Decisions Dissapoint: The Problem of Adaptation

Regrets and opportunity costs are all about the alternatives we let go of, but we can still feel dissatisfied with the option we chose. Adaptation describes a psychological process in which we get used to things to the point that we take them for granted. This happens because humans, like most animals, are wired to respond less to an environmental event if that event persists. When something pleasurable happens and we adapt to it, we’re experiencing hedonic adaptation. Novelty changes your standards to the point that anything less feels like a loss.

It’s worth mentioning that hedonic adaptation works for both good and bad things. So you can get used to driving a new car, but you can also get used to not having a car at all. Similarly, buying things can be a pleasurable experience, but the more you do it, the more you get used to it. So eventually, buying things will turn into comfort, and going from pleasure to comfort is disappointing. When this happens, some will stop pursuing the kind of pleasure that comes from consumption and others will continue to pursue novelty in the form of experiences and commodities. This is what we call the hedonic treadmill. Something similar is a phenomenon called the satisfaction treadmill in which you get used to a steady level of satisfaction, so you pursue an even higher level.

Choices are so abundant nowadays that the problem of adaptation becomes worse due to the time and effort decisions take. Taking a month to choose a new computer isn’t bad if you use it for the next two decades, but it becomes a problem when you get used to it in a couple of months and you find yourself looking for a replacement.

An antidote to adaptation is gratitude. Expressing gratitude regularly makes you healthier and more optimistic than those who don’t. Gratitude makes you alert, enthusiastic, and more energetic. By expressing gratitude, you’re more likely to achieve your goals and the best part about it is that the more you practice it, the easier it gets.

Chapter 9: Why Everything Suffers from Comparison

Comparing experiences and objects is inevitable because this is how we judge things. This is also, how we determine the decisions we make. While having a benchmark is useful to a certain extent, there are so many possible alternatives to compare to that we run the risk of being dissatisfied with the one we end up choosing. What was once acceptable is no longer good enough because our aspirations rose. This happens because society progressed, but also because of the hedonic treadmill.

Having high expectations all the time is a curse. This is the case because having too many options inevitably leads to high expectations, so we tend to become maximizers. Having modest expectations, on the other hand, leads to a pleasant surprise. We can achieve this by saving certain experiences for special occasions. If you have great meals, great clothes, or great vacations all the time, you’ll never feel great again.

Not only do we compare things and experiences, but we also compare ourselves to others. We can compare ourselves to others who are doing better (upward social comparison) or to others who are doing worse (downward social comparison). While upward comparisons lead to jealousy, hostility, negativity, unhappiness, and stress, downward comparisons lead to more self-esteem, positivity, and less anxiety.

So why do we feel the need to compare ourselves to others? We do it because we care about our status. In a way, achievements and possessions matter because not everyone has access to them. The problem is that we don’t live in small communities anymore and thanks to the internet, we can compare ourselves to anyone.

Chapter 10: Whose Fault Is It? Choice, Disappointment, and Depression

Unlimited choice leads to suffering. On top of that, happiness has been going downhill for years, even in countries like the United States where people are wealthier. Despite having more money and more health than ever before, there have never been as many cases of depression. Depression has numerous consequences, including unhappiness, neglected friendships, poor job performance, and in extreme cases, suicide.

Since there are limitless options at our disposal, we don’t have to settle for good enough. Naturally, this leads to unrealistic expectations for our education, work, spouses, children, and possessions. We’ve also become incredibly individualistic and we don’t expect perfection in everything, but also in ourselves. Instead of turning toward the antidote to depression (our community), we turn to ourselves. Focusing on ourselves though weakens our ties to others.

Part IV: What We Can Do

Chapter 11: What to Do About Choice

Modern society brought numerous advancements, but they come at a price. Having limitless choices leads to distress, regret, concern, and a desire to have the best. To mitigate this, the author suggests the following steps:

  1. Choose when to choose: There are consequences to choosing, so we must avoid doing it whenever possible. Focus on the few choices that have the potential to change your life.
  2. Be a chooser, not a picker: Choosers think about the decisions they make and what makes those decisions important. Pickers, on the other hand, select something passively from what’s available. To become choosers, we have to create habits, customs, norms, and rules around our decisions so that they become automatic.
  3. Satisfice more and maximize less: Having too many choices hurts maximizers the most. Learn to accept “good enough” because this is better in the long run.
  4. Think about the opportunity costs of opportunity costs: limit how much you think about the features of the alternatives you choose.
  5. Make your decisions nonreversible: While changing our minds about certain decisions has its advantages, this might lead to less satisfaction.
  6. Practice an “attitude of gratitude”: While gratitude isn’t a natural trait for most people, you can cultivate it with practice.
  7. Regret less: Regret can paralyze us to the point that we avoid decisions altogether. To mitigate regret, think like a satisficer instead of a maximizer, reduce your options before deciding, and practice gratitude.
  8. Anticipate adaptation: We adapt to everything, even bad things. Whenever possible, remember the pleasure things gave you when you first got them and how that feeling soon wore off.
  9. Control expectations: Remove high expectations about the result of your decisions.
  10. Curtail social comparison: There are some advantages to social comparison, but doing so often leads to dissatisfaction.
  11. Learn to love constraints: Limiting your options is liberating not constraining. Enforcing rules and turning them into habits prevents unnecessary decisions.

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