Saturday, August 05, 2006

Card on Schwartz

I just ran across this old Orson Scott Card essay on Barry Schwartz's book The Paradox of Choice, and I think he gets it exactly right. Schwartz had great ideas about the way we process choices and how we can let the number of options available to us dominate our lives and make us unhappy. He wrote what seems to be an excellent book about these ideas. Then he used the same ideas to push an odious and ill-thought-out political platform, saying the government should take away our choices because they just make us unhappy anyway. In doing this, he completely missed his own point.

Card rejects this paternalistic logic:
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.

We can't overcome the paradox of choice by globally removing some options. I may be happier if they cut us down to just three types of toothpaste, but the guy who desperately needs Colgate Platinum Whitening Fluoride Toothpaste would be pissed. Similarly, most people might not mind if we cut down to two laundry detergents, but I need the hypoallergenic stuff; the time I tried washing my clothes with regular detergent I itched nonstop for the next two weeks. More choices means we can find the things that really suit us.

The solution to the paradox of choice is to figure out which choices matter and which ones don't. Richard Feynman made this point years ago: he said that when he was in college, he put a lot of mental energy every day into deciding which dessert he should eat for lunch. He realized that was stupid and declared that he would just get the chocolate cake every day. Seems silly, but it saved him a lot of stress. Choices are available for those who care; and the rest of us can just pick something and stop worrying. That's a learned skill, but a useful one.

Card's other really excellent point is that removing some choices from yourself can dramatically improve your life and increase your freedom. Once again, the key is that each person decides which choices to discard, since I have no way of knowing which choices are most important for you (I'd probably decide to take away your choice to watch sports on TV, since no sane person could possibly want to do that. Sign of a diseased mind, you know). When someone else tells you what you can't do, it's a limit, a constraint, an obstacle. But when you set restrictions on yourself,
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...

I have more freedom, I think; not less.


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