Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Paradox of Choice?


Is Freedom Just Another Word for Many Things to Buy? - New York Times

[P]eople who frame freedom in terms of choice are usually the ones who get to make a lot of choices — that is, middle- and upper-class white Americans (most of our study participants are white; we can't make any claims about other racial and ethnic groups). The education, income and upbringing of these Americans grant them choices about how to live their lives and also encourage them to express their preferences and personalities through the choices they make. Most Americans, however, are not from the college-educated middle and upper classes. Working-class Americans often have fewer resources and experience greater uncertainty and insecurity. For them, being free is less about making choices that reflect their uniqueness and mastery and more about being left alone, with their personality, integrity and well-being intact.

This is a superb article co-authored by Barry Schwartz, who argues in The Paradox of Choice that, contrary to the received wisdom, having the widest possible range of choices may not be a good thing. Citing empirical research, he notes that presented with a wide range of options many consumers either become stymied and incapable of making any choice or invest so much in search and deliberation that any additional utility they squeeze out by getting their ceteris paribus most preferred product is swamped by the costs of search and deliberation.

Does this show, as Schwartz suggests, that having "too many" choices is a bad thing? No. What it shows is that people should adopt satisficing rather than maximizing strategies--go for good enough rather then best. And this is just the old time religion: you should behave rationally--and that means recognizing the costs of search in utility calculations. Of course further search is always a temptation so to do this you may want to adopt procedures to restrict your options, like Ulysses bound to the mast. But that is itself a choice.

The interesting feature of this article, not in the book, is the class issue--which hadn't occurred to me but which, in retrospect, should have been obvious. Middle class people have a taste for choice as such--lower class people don't have that taste and, according to Schwartz, may actually regard choice as a threat:

In a recent study with Nicole Stephens at Stanford University, we asked college students to pick "three adjectives that best capture what the word 'choice' means to you." A higher percentage of those who had parents with a college education said "freedom," "action" and "control," while more of those whose parents had only a high-school education responded with "fear," "doubt" and "difficulty."...[W]hen we analyzed country music, preferred over rock by less-educated Americans in every region, we heard more mentions of self-protection and defense, as in Darryl Worley's observation, "We didn't get to keep [our freedom] by backin' down." When choice was mentioned, it was often as a prelude or coda to tragedy, as in George Jones's lament "Now I'm living and dying with the choices I've made."

Not surprising. If you have relatively few options, most of which aren't so hot, and you aren't very good at rational decision-making or used to making long-term plans, the best you can do is "walk the line." (Paul was playing a Johnny Cash song in the car about this). The best you can do is follow the social conventions for good behavior, military discipline or the rules set by your church. Choice means deviation from the rules--and for you, break the rules and you end up living in squalor, impoverished, strung out on drugs, wasted. The political ramifications aren't surprising either. Loosen up on the rules, go soft on punishment, and people will run amok. No surprise either that, when it comes to abortion, the working class aren't impressed by rhetoric about "choice"--that's precisely what they don't want their daughters to have.

Maybe the fundamental difference is about internal vs. external constraints. In some online discussion I remember a woman from the middle east saying that young men simply haven't got the idea that they can, much less should, check their impulses: if they see a woman dressed provocatively it's an invitation to rape. And they don't see it as their fault: how can they be expected to refrain from doing what they feel like doing? At bottom this is a special case of the assumption that people can't be expected to behave rationally--that they can't be either prudent or moral on their own steam, that they can't figure out what to do without socially imposed rules and can't control their impulses without external constraints--without cops, locks and the fear of hell. Choice leads to bad consequences in the long run--"living and dying with the choices I've made"--but people can't be expected to consider long-term consequences when they make decisions.

I don't buy Schwartz's conclusion:

What conception of freedom should Americans pursue? While the upper and middle classes define freedom as choice, working-class Americans emphasize freedom from instability...Similarly, many of the freedoms endorsed and advocated by U.S. foreign policy may not always resemble those desired by the people whom we hope to help. To govern well, both at home and abroad, Americans would be wise to listen to how freedom rings in different cultural contexts

Granted, the US shouldn't invade countries on the pretext of spreading "freedom." But I don't buy the idea that societies that restrict choice are ok because their citizens don't want choice. The question is whether their preference for limiting options is rational and informed. And it isn't. It's a consequence of the mistaken idea that people can't be expected to behave rationally--that they can't either make good, informed choices or control their impulses. Consider this remarkable piece of data from the article:

people...employed in middle-class jobs got upset when a friend or neighbor bought the same car as theirs because they felt that the uniqueness of their choice had been undercut. But those in working-class jobs liked it when others chose the same car because it affirmed that they had made a good choice.

The assumption these working-class people make is that they can't trust their own judgment, that there is simply no way of researching the respective merits of cars and making a purchase decision accordingly--the best you can do is conform. Incredibly they make this assumption when it comes to a decision that involves hard data and is relatively straight-forward--where all you need to do to make a rational decision is to buy the annual used car issue of Consumer Reports and look at the data. Think of how this assumption plays out in where there isn't hard data and where decisions aren't that straight-forward. Non-conformity is dangerous. Why? Because the only way you can figure out what to do is by following the conventions and doing what most other people do. There just isn't anything else to go on. Again, not surprising: one of the most obnoxious features of working class culture is the utter dread of non-conformity--in dress, behavior, ideas, everything.

Now trusting to The Wisdom of Crowds isn't always an irrational strategy. Sometimes it's the best you can do. But the idea that there's nothing else you can trust, that even where you have access to data and are in an excellent position to make a decision on the basis of your own interests and preferences, you should trust the crowd and follow the conventions.

The conservative strategy that working-class people and members of traditional societies choose has high costs. Maybe this is one of those cases though where it's worth it for individuals but creates an overall situation that's not so hot--a suboptimal equilibrium. If you're a woman in a society where the sight of a woman's bare legs drives young men mad you'd better wear a burqa and if you're a young man in a society where all the women are wearing burqas the sight of women's bare legs will drive you mad. If you're working class, and inclined to drink away your paycheck, beat your wife and run up credit card debt, the best you can do is bind yourself to the mast: buy into Fundamentalism, vote for more cops, more prisons and harsher punishments, support strictness and constraint, walk the line. Where everyone walks the line and supports policies that enforce the rules, seeing no other reason to behave themselves, then people will run amok if the rules are relaxed and get into trouble if they get to make choices--and the system is locked in forever.

Not in Schwartz, but there was an experimental program for young offenders where, as an alternative to conventional prison time, boys were put into a program modeled after Marine boot camp (without the guns). They were yelled at, made to do forced marches with heavy backpacks and innumerable pushups--and loved every minute of it. They cleaned up their acts but, predictably, most ran amok as soon as they got out on the street. The moral of this is if you're a social planner or demiurge you can make some people better off by imposing discipline and restricting choice--but you had better be prepared to keep the lid on in perpetuity. If however you're a social planner, or at least if you're a demiurge you can, alternatively, teach people how to control their impulses, plan ahead, reflect on their options and make rational choices for themselves. This goes not only for working class conservatives who believe, wrongly, that too much choice is bad but middle class liberals who, Schwartz claims are overwhelmed by choices.

Maybe this issue is grabby to me--and I'm writing on it, the whole thing on preference including Schwartz's book--because on the one hand this claim is so counterintuitive and remote from my experience and on the other hand because I'm chronically angry at not having enough choices. I want x and I can't get it--that is the fundamental problem of the human condition. I not only get angry about the things I want but can't get--like terra cotta tiles for my bathroom floor: I stew about things I don't want but couldn't have gotten if I had wanted them. This business of anxiety and indecision, and the cliche of getting what you want and finding it as ashes in your mouth, just seems like more baloney by people who've been reinforced for whining and self-dramatization. The fix is easy: satisfice. Choose whatever suits and don't worry about what you missed. Reflect on what you want, do the research, and go for it. If you're indifferent, flip a coin, adopt a procedure for narrowing options or ask someone else to choose. Or bind yourself to the mast if you must--just don't bind me. Why is this so hard?

3 comments:

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