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World Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card February 20, 2005

Why Making Choices Is So Hard

Why is it that even though we live in the richest country in the world and have an enormous number of choices we can make every day, we Americans show signs of being unhappier than we were thirty or fifty years ago?

Why are so many people so much more depressed?

Why are people who have everything so dissatisfied?

In the book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Barry Schwartz takes a serious scientific and logical look at why it might be that Americans feel so oppressed in the midst of freedom, so unhappy in the midst of plenty.

His theory?

Too many choices.

At first that seems like a ridiculous reason for unhappiness. I love it that I don't have to buy Ivory or Irish Spring, but can choose to buy Dial -- and not just Dial, but the particular flavor of Dial bar soap that is just right for me.

But that's because I've already limited my own choices, Schwartz would say. I have been branded. I made the decision for Dial soap long ago and really don't look for any other brands. And while I have occasionally tried different types of Dial soap, I completely ignored the whole bodywash/loofah revolution.

So for me, it doesn't matter that I have a huge selection of soaps to choose from. I've already chosen.

This may be part of the reason why people who belong to orthodox religions are, on average, the happiest group in America. Cynics or critics might say that members of these religious groups have switched off their brains and turned their decision-making over to somebody else. But this is not true.

On the contrary, what orthodox or conservative Christians, Jews, and Muslims do is commit to a system of beliefs and laws and rules, and, having once chosen, no longer regard the decisions as "up for grabs."

Think of it this way: If you belong to a religion that regards marriage as sacred, permanent, unbreakable, then once you've married, you stop "shopping" -- you aren't looking for somebody better. You're simply going to make it work with the partner you're already married to.

That's why people who don't regard divorce as an option tend to be markedly more satisfied with the spouse and the marriage that they have.

On the other hand, people who live together without marriage are the group most likely, once they do marry, to get divorced. Why? Partly, at least, because to them the relationship between woman and man is a tentative one; the decision has to be made over and over again, and the current spouse is constantly being measured against others.

*

In Schwartz's book, serious decision-makers are largely divided into two broad groups: Maximizers and Satisficers. (Awkward as the latter word is, it was needed and you get used to it.)

Satisficers are people who have high standards, but once those standards have been met, they decide and act and don't look back.

Maximizers, however, are committed to finding the best -- the best quality, the best features, the best price.

I'm a satisficer in almost everything. For instance, I can only wear cotton, linen, silk, or acrylic, and have to avoid wool and polyester. So when I'm looking for sweaters, most of them aren't acceptable. I won't "make do" with a sweater that will make me break out in a rash.

However, once I've found a sweater made of the right stuff, in my size, at a price I can afford, and with a shape and color that I want to wear, I simply buy it and stop looking for more. I don't care if I see a similar sweater later at a lower price; I won't even notice, because I'm not looking any more.

Satisficers can be fussy; but, once they make a choice, they're done. They move on.

Maximizers, however, are never done. Because they are committed to making the best possible choice, they can never say "good enough" and move on. Instead, they put off their decision longer and longer, constantly looking for even better possibilities.

And when they do make a choice, they still keep looking, inwardly beating themselves up over their choice whenever they find one that might have been better.

Maximizers are never satisfied because no matter what they choose, they can find a reason why their choice was wrong and they've somehow failed.

There are a couple of other groups. "Pickers" are those who have simply given up making serious choices. They just take whatever comes to hand first and then, if it turns out to be a lousy choice, they toss it and pick again. It's a wasteful system and the results are almost random. They have simply surrendered.

Perfectionists, on the other hand, might seem to be Maximizers, but they're not. A true Perfectionist is always trying to get better and better, but he knows that perfection is unattainable, and is willing to make choices along the way. Schwartz's example is, for instance, a player like Tiger Woods, who practices endlessly in order to perfect his technique -- but he doesn't wait to play in competition until he has achieved perfection. He competes all along. He will try to be closer to perfection tomorrow -- but the skills he has today are good enough for him to play in today's game.

Keep in mind, though, that almost nobody is a Maximizer or Satisficer or Picker or Perfectionist at everything. We maximize on some choices, satisfice on others.

*

Schwartz goes far below the surface of these groups, however, to examine why having too many choices can make us miserable. First, there's the matter of Opportunity Cost. When we're faced with a wide variety of choices, none of them perfect, the choice we make will require tradeoffs.

We can spend a week at the beach but we'll miss out on the cool weather and gorgeous scenery of the mountains. We'll also miss out on the chance to visit with relatives that we might have had if we had taken our vacation close to where those family members live. And there won't be any of those great restaurants and Broadway shows we could have had if we vacationed in New York City. Worse yet, we'll get none of the carefree life that is offered on a cruise ship, where everything is taken care of and you can just relax.

The result is that if all of these are things we value, no matter what vacation choice we make, we'll be aware of losing something; taking one opportunity means missing out on others.

And the more choices we have, the more opportunities we'll lose. For Maximizers, having many desirable choices almost guarantees disappointment and regret.

As Schwartz quotes one young person as saying, "What happens when you have too many options is that you are responsible for what happens to you."

If it's your fault that you're disappointed, then you are filled with regret. And regret can be a kind of poison.

Of course there is such a thing as earned regret. If you break up your marriage over some passing romance or quarrel, your later regret is completely appropriate.

But if you have a life burdened with meaningless regret, over missed opportunities or choices endlessly postponed in search of an unattainable "best," then you're making yourself miserable over nothing.

When we're given monochoices -- take it or leave it -- we're far less likely to experience depressing regrets. But when we're confronted with two separate choices, each with pros and cons, how can we possibly make regret-free decisions?

*

Interestingly, Schwartz discovers that the traditional list of pros and cons is not terribly helpful. Instead of clarifying our thinking, it can muddy our choice and lead us astray.

That's because when we make lists, the only things we can include are ideas that can be put into words.

Yet those are often the least important aspects of a choice. Most often, our real preference is a "gut feeling" that can't be put into words or verbally defended. If we try to explain our preference, we'll make up reasons that can be verbally expressed, and soon we become committed to our explanations, not to our actual feelings.

That's how we can talk ourselves into a choice that is contrary to our gut feeling. At the time we choose, we believe our self-explanations; but over time, that temporary self-persuasion fades, and only the original gut-feeling remains. We wind up disappointed with our choice. We would have been better off, in such cases, if we had simply followed the impulse.

This does not mean to close your eyes and "use the Force, Luke." But it does mean that we need to take our gut feelings every bit as seriously as we take the "reasons" that can easily be put into words.

*

One of the most poisonous ways that maximizing can harm us is when we "want only the best" for our children.

Think what that means: We have to get our kids into the best possible jobs, which means getting them into the best schools, which means they must be among the best-performing students, which means we need to get started very early to prepare them to be the best.

That's why there are such things as college-prep kindergartens and nursery schools.

On the other hand, my wife and I knew -- and told our kids -- that there are some careers for which college is important, and others for which it isn't. Our two oldest kids are both in careers where college is irrelevant. We helped them in every way we could to prepare for those careers -- but we never pressured them to be "the best" in school.

It was simply irrelevant. As I told our kids early on, "If you want to go to college, we'll help you go to a reasonably affordable school. But we won't pay a single dime to send you to hyper-expensive prestige schools, because you can get at least as good an education at a school where the best professors actually teach the undergraduate students. If you want to go to Harvard, get yourself a scholarship."

We did and do want "the best" for our children -- the best, happiest life. But life happiness is not a competitive sport. It doesn't require Harvard or even college; it does, however, require that you be a decent person with the important virtues: honesty, loyalty, generosity, trust, kindness, cooperativeness, eagerness to learn -- a partial list, but a good one.

*

I have watched many friends and family members crash their lives against the rock of Maximizing. They live with constant regret and disappointment; they missed out on many great chances because they were waiting for a better one, which never came.

Even though having too many choices is the cause of a lot of misery, the solution is not to eliminate choices. A few months ago, in the former East Germany, we were talking to a German who said, "I just don't understand why you need so many kinds of soap. In the old days, we went to the store and bought soap. It was so simple."

Well, I don't want that system. I like having choices. I wish we had more of them. Or at least I wish that they wouldn't keep taking choices away.

But it isn't the choices themselves that matter. It's the sense of control of our own lives. And, paradoxically, we often get far more of a sense of control -- of autonomy -- by voluntarily limiting our own choices than we get by leaving all our options open, all the time.

I've had people say, when they learned that I don't take illegal drugs or drink alcohol or use tobacco, "How do you live with limits like that?" They are especially critical when they realize that it's part of my religion.

But to me, they aren't limits. They're choices that have become part of who I am. And my religion didn't force those choices on me; I chose to be part of that religion and chose those rules as part of my identity. It's as comfortable a fit as an extra-large cotton sweater.

I have more freedom, I think; not less.

The same thing applies with other matters. I accept the consequences of having embarked on a committed, no-fault marriage -- the opposite of a no-fault divorce. It means constant effort to know what the other person's happiness requires and to try to provide it; it means many sacrifices as the needs of wife and children require me to give up choices that might otherwise be mine.

But within that marriage and family, I have opportunities that simply aren't available to those whose relationships are more tentative.

The tragedy of our modern marriage customs is that we do have an impact on each other. Every divorce makes every marriage more tentative; each couple we know personally who choose to break up their marriage (or live together without marriage) makes the possibility of ending our own marriage more real, more available -- even if we don't want that possibility.

*

What Schwartz has discovered is that sometimes, what we need in order to be happy is to limit our choices. We want to be free to make some choices; but we want to be free of the regretful burden of making others.

People who don't have cancer, when asked whether they want to have control over their own treatment, overwhelmingly answer yes. But actual cancer patients, whose survival might depend on those choices, overwhelmingly answer that they want their doctors to tell them what is the best course of treatment. (There are exceptions in both categories, of course.)

At the same time, nursing home patients who are given no choices are far more likely to die sooner than those who are given at least some significant areas of autonomy, where they can make choices for themselves.

We need to be free to choose; we need to be free of endless choosing.

The trick is to find the balance. To teach ourselves to live as satisficers, not filling our lives with meaningless regret over "lost" opportunities. To find good ways to limit our own choices in ways that will leave us free to make the ones that remain to us.

Schwartz doesn't pretend to have the answers to the woes of modern life. But he has some answers, or at least some suggestions.

*

I have only touched on the wealth of ideas in The Paradox of Choice; I haven't even mentioned several important topics within it. The idea is not to use this column as a substitute for reading it, but rather as an entry point.

The book is less than two hundred pages long; his writing, while precise, is clear, and where he resorts to specialized language he explains what he's talking about.

Schwartz doesn't tell you what rules to follow or what purposes should drive your life. He tells you how rule-making works and how choices are made, and you can adapt what you learn from this book to help you shape -- or reshape -- the rules you live by and the opportunities you seek.

Copyright © 2005 by Orson Scott Card.


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