the paradox of paradise

If not for the fact that Steven den Beste is already a founding member, I’d label Mark the SDB of the Otakusphere. He’s got another long, deeply insightful essay up, about strategies of choice. The idea is to look critically at Barry Schwartz’s idea of a “paradox of choice” (ie the concept that too much choice is detrimental). A book by Chris Anderson, The Long Tail, devotes some space to analyzing whether the paradox truly exists and whether or not there is a “paradise of choice” instead. Mark deftly summarizes the arguments and lays out his own analysis. Go take a look.

I think that there is some legitimacy to the idea that the paradox of choice represents a limitation of the medium rather than anything inherently wrong with too much choice in the abstract. However, we humans are probably wired for some optimal N in decision-making; an example is that N ~ 100 when it comes to our social circle (I wonder if anyone has explored that using Facebook or LinkedIn as a dataset?). As a strategy, “satisficing” (defining your desired parameters and then choosing the first candidate that meets them rather than trying to find the “best”) is probably the most robust in the long run. The concept is well-described in the aphorism, “perfection is the enemy of the good” and from political candidates to digital cameras, it’s pretty much the only way to make a meaningful choice rather than be ensnared in perpetual indecision.

Philosophically speaking, should there be less choice? Like Mark, I am leery of mandating it to be so, but the question of whether there should be less choice to increase “optimal-ness” (in the abstract sense) is an intriguing one. Is it true, for example, that someone who buys a product where there is relatively less choice (ie, a gaming console) is happier with their choice than someone who buys a product where there is far more choice (like a phone) ? Politics is a natural counterexample; almost no one seems happy with their choice, despite it usually being binary (for all practical purposes). One can then postulate an “optimal” N about which happiness is maximized. But here again I think that too much N is preferable to not enough N, because then at least you have the satisficing strategy to fall back on, whereas there is no such mechanism at the low end.

3 thoughts on “the paradox of paradise”

  1. Wow, I’m honored by the comparison. Though in his day, SDB was way more prolific and insightful:P

    I think the reason that politics is an exception is that politics involves a whole lot of decsions that have no right answer. What candidate do you choose when the problems you face have no good solution? There’s ton of problems, and there’s not going to be a candidate that you’ll agree with on everything.

    But yes, I agree that more choice is better. Why? Because life inherently involves choice, and it always will. By dealing with tons of little choices, we get better at making decisions. I remember reading about communist defectors who had a lot of trouble adjusting to life in the west – too many choices, too much freedom. Freedom is hard.

  2. Back when I used to post heavily on a forum, I noticed one of the most common fallacies was the straw man. This would be especially common when someone was attacking a position they were opposed to beforehand.

    SDB has an article somewhere about human thought processes and inductive thinking. He briefly discusses why humans tend to confuse causation and correlation, and suggests that its related to our reliance on induction.

    An idea I have been bouncing around for a while combines these two things. Is there a reason the straw man argument is so popular? Paradox of choice is one explanation. When faced with an excess of choice, it is useful to eliminate the options that you already dislike. Carefully exploring these options before eliminating them is counter productive, but poor generalizations can be good enough to write off a choice without the guilt and confusion associated with actually considering the strong points.

  3. Mark, your site is a goldmine of thoughtful essays – its a comparison well-deserved.

    I’m not sure that the policy issues are what drive poltical decisions, though. I am a strong advocate of the belief that all people are rational thinkers (bad choices being a function of GIGO rather than any deficit of reason). However, in the political environment, there is virtually no substantive debate on the actual nuts and bolts. I was talking to a family member about the Social Security debate for example andthey repeated several conventional wisdom points about it which are in fact completely false, but it suits both sides of the aisle to pretend otherwise because it motivates voters in their camps. Some mihgt call this ignorance, but it also is in a way a paradox of choice. There are so many issues that to even spend a tiny amount of research time on each to get some basic familiarity, you end up spending a LOT of time in the aggregate. For the average person thats not time they have to “waste”. Ultimately, then, the decision abot politicians boils down to who sells themselves on style rather than policy, a fact of which most voters are of course aware, which breeds cynicism.

    ngthagg, combining the straw man with paradox of choice is an intriguing thought. I wonder if all the famous Logical Fallacies might be reinterpreted in a information-filtering perspective…

Comments are closed.