Home > Behavioural Economics > Freedom of choice – is it really a good thing?

Freedom of choice – is it really a good thing?

Here is another piece from Martin Luk that was published in the recent edition of “The King’s Echo”.
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Barry Schwartz, in his TED talk “The Paradox of Choice”, talks about the “official dogma of all western industrial societies”. This is the common belief that by maximising one’s choice, we are maximising their freedom, and therefore their welfare. However, Schwartz gives some reasons why this may not be true, and this article aims to highlight these.

Firstly, here is a clear, intuitive example of how choice may not necessary be a good thing. A doctor offers X amount of treatment options to the patient, and allows the patient to choose. The patient has choice, but he/she would most likely lack the knowledge and physical state of mind to make the best decision. Obviously, it should be better if the doctor, with all their experience and knowledge, makes the decision, even though it restricts the patient’s choice.

Choice
One of the main reasons why freedom can do more harm than good, is that it paradoxically causes paralysis in decision-making. When people have a lot of freedom, they have to spend time and effort considering the many options and making a decision. We have so much freedom in our college lives, that I think all of us will inevitably have endless questions racing through our minds, such as “Should I be studying or relaxing? What subjects should I take next year? Do I go to community service or football training? Should I text this girl or not?” These rather futile, yet difficult decisions make us indecisive, slow, and permanently pre-occupied in our lives, all thanks to the “problem” of having a bit too much freedom.

However, there are some more subtle cognitive effects that come with more freedom. First, it is very easy to imagine that there was a better choice than the one that you had chosen. If a girl chooses a certain lipstick among the many thousands there are at Smith & Caughey’s, and finds out that she doesn’t like it, then it is easy for her to think that there was a better option in the store somewhere that she didn’t choose –despite the fact that there may not be. Even if her choice was very good, it isn’t hard for her to imagine that there was an even better alternative. This causes us to regret our own decisions (even if the option we took was the best choice), and this can seriously damage how satisfied we are with something. And with more freedom, comes more capacity to imagine that the grass is greener on the other side.

Those who take economics may also be familiar with the term “opportunity cost”. This simply means the alternatives that you have to give up, in order to go with one option. For example, by going on Facebook, your opportunity cost could be studying, or going out with your friends, eating, or gaming. As you can clearly see, the more freedom of choice you have, the more you can do at any point in time: leading to higher opportunity costs. More freedom = more things you are going to miss out on by doing something. What this means, is that the attractiveness of the alternatives you reject can subtract from your satisfaction from doing something, even if that thing is very enjoyable and fun.

Finally, in this “choice-full” world of today, people are bound to choose an option that is almost perfect. Schwartz talks about how there only used to be one kind of jeans that you could buy, compared to the many different colours, fabric, fit, and size that you can buy today. He claims that by being able to buy such near-perfect jeans, you have such high expectations for the next pair that you can’t be completely satisfied. He jokes: “the secret to happiness is low expectations.” I find this to be true to a certain extent.

However, I have left the most damaging part of freedom to last. Putting it simply: “Everything is because of you.” If we live in a world of little choice, and you don’t feel happy about something, then you can blame others and the world around you (it isn’t your fault that you can’t get what you want). However, if we live in a world full of choices, then you only have yourself to blame if you are not satisfied with what you have. There is no excuse for failure, as the right alternative would have probably been out there somewhere, but it would have been you who failed to choose the right one. Schwartz points to the rise in clinical depression in the industrial world in the last generation, and I agree with him in saying that more choice has played a large factor in this.

In all, excess freedom may allow us to perform better in general, but it will leave us feeling worse off emotionally. Some choice is better than none, but more choice may not necessarily be better than some choice. There is some tipping point where increased amounts of freedom may begin to have the adverse effects that I have talked about above. In this world of today, we may have just passed that.

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Categories: Behavioural Economics
  1. Jim Frood
    October 5, 2013 at 10:44 am

    Yes, an excellent thoughtful item. Choice is a challenge, especially in a world of proliferating choices which can leave people stuck like insects in amber. “Paralysis by analysis” as the NZ PM Norman Kirk used to say.

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