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Making The Right Choice

The current edition of Scientific American magazine (April, 2004) has an article titled The Tyranny of Choice that should be required reading for everyone that visits sites like this one — searching for information on choosing the next camera or other photographic equipment.

My suggestion is that you...

— walk to your local magazine store and buy a copy

— drive to your local magazine store and buy a copy

— bicycle to your local magazine store and buy a copy

When you get there you can pay with...

— cash

— a debit card

— a credit card

When you get home you should...

— read the article

— have someone read it to you

— save it to read in bed tonight

Are you starting to get the drift?

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Choice = Defense

The Tyranny of Choice is written by Barry Schwartz, professor of Social Theory at Swathmore College. The premise of his essay is that in contemporary society we are faced with an overabundance of choices, and that rather than leading to greater happiness, indeed for the type of person which he classifies as "maximizers", this over-abundance of choice often leads to decreased satisfaction and reduced happiness.

I want to bring the article to your attention because it speaks directly to some of the issues that I have been discussing on this site in several recent articles. But it approaches the subject from a different angle. According to Schwartz maximizers are people who always aim to make the best possible choice. When they are faced with a blizzard of such choices (as photographers are today when choosing a digital camera), they become obsessed with not making the wrong choice.

The other personality type are called "satisficers". These are people who when they find a product that meets their needs stop looking.

In some ways the personality type which I have irreverently called pixel-peepers are clearly maximizers. These are people who are obsessed with make the right choice (as if there actually is any such thing), and even when the choice is made and the purchase made worry whether they really made the right decision. Also, when they have made their choice they become very vocal in defending it. Sometimes this also involves denigrating the comparable choices that other people have made. We see this online in the form of those who "troll" the forums where other brands are discussed, and also people who act as staunch, even rabid defenders of the brands and models that they chose following their lengthy search and analysis.

Schwartz points out that there is a correlation between the amount of effort people put into their product purchase decision making and their ultimate satisfaction with that decision and the product in question. Just because they obsess over the decision doesn't necessarily mean that their satisfaction lasts longer. Indeed it is satisficers that are seen as being more satisfied with their decisions for longer, and also as generally being a happier personality type.


Fenced Dirt — Toronto, April, 2004
Minolta A2 @ 6.4mm (28mm equiv). ISO 64.

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You Mean Me?

Needless to say as someone that tests and compares equipment I'm guilty as hell of being a maximizer. But as with most things in life maximizers come in different flavours, and I suppose I fall somewhere south of being a full-bore maximizer type. (Pun intended).

As an example — just before Christmas I decided that prices had fallen enough that it was finally time to buy a High Definition Plasma TV. What did I do? Naturally I bought all the magazines, read all the test report, and visited numerous dealers. Pixel peeping, if you will. I finally made my decision, brought the set home, started watching movies and sports (the Super Bowl was amazing in High-Def), and that was it. I no longer feel the need to read test reports, or agonize over whether the new models that have come out since are better than the one that I chose. I also don't hang around plasma TV discussion forums defending my decision and hazing those who think that another brand than the one that I bought would have been a better choice. I guess this makes me a semi-maximizer.

In any event — the next time you're at the corner store, pick up a copy of the April, 2004 Scientific American and read the article. It's a bit of an eye opener, and has some insights into our consumer culture that we should all consider a bit more closely.

An earlier variation on the article by Barry Schwartz can be found here.


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Concepts: Choice, Decision making software, Decision theory, Choice architecture, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Decision making, Personality psychology, Plasma display

Entities: corner store, Swathmore College, Christmas, Michael Reichmann, Barry Schwartz, Scientific American magazine

Tags: local magazine store, personality type, Barry Schwartz, test reports, Scientific American, plasma tv, best possible choice, Scientific American magazine, happier personality type, full-bore maximizer type, purchase decision making, High Definition Plasma, plasma tv discussion, wrong choice, brand, right choice, better choice, Schwartz maximizers, comparable choices, right decision, Swathmore College, required reading, current edition, different angle, greater happiness, ultimate satisfaction, rabid defenders, earlier variation, eye opener, photographic equipment, lengthy search, Social Theory, recent articles, contemporary society, different flavours, digital camera, numerous dealers, life maximizers, new models, Super Bowl