Barry Schwartz experiences: less is more

When the number of options exceeds a certain thresholdOverinformation can produce a level of stress that leads to paralysis. And sometimes it can be difficult to make a decision when we have so many roads to travel. The more things we have to exclude, the greater the stress and indecision

Now, by giving up options, we become capable people; otherwise, we would have an excess of physical and emotional burden that would make our path much more expensive.

    Barry Schwartz and the paradox of choice

    This week we spoke with the Mensalus Institute of Psychological and Psychiatric Care about the paradox of choice through the experiences of Barry Schwartz.

    What do Barry Schwartz’s experiences show?

    Psychologist and professor Barry Schwartz argued in his book The Paradox of Choice (2004) that the “more choice is more well-being” reasoning is not necessarily true. A priori, a wider range of possibilities is positive and increases the well-being of individuals, but if the number of alternatives crosses a certain threshold, negative effects may appear.

    Thus, if the threshold is exceeded in excess, the disadvantages may outweigh the advantages, leading to the so-called paradox of choice. What we initially mean by “adding” actually turns against us and makes free decision difficult.

    What did the experiments consist of?

    One of the experiments was carried out in a supermarket. It consisted in offering the tasting of a brand of jam. Two measurements were made: during the first test, the exhibitor proposed many flavors; in the second, there were few types of jam that users could taste. In both cases, there was a record of how many people came to try the jam and how many people ended up buying it.

    Well when there were more flavors on display the number of people who decided to taste was higher, but very few ended up buying. In contrast, when the number of options was small, fewer people came to try, but almost all bought. Because? Simple: faced with so many possibilities, they couldn’t make up their minds. The conclusion was that if the brand offered few flavors, it would increase its sales.

    An article in the Country titled “Less is More” compares this experience to the strategy used in Greek restaurants in New York. The menu at these places was very extensive. The bombardment of dishes on the menu has increased the indecision of customers. This caused them to set aside options and ask for recommendations. It is then that the server takes the opportunity to point out the dishes where the restaurant is making the most profit.

    What other experiments has this psychologist conducted?

    Schwartz focused his attention on the students. In several experiments, the possibility of increasing the grade was offered to different groups of students. In one of them, the teacher gave the opportunity to improve the score by writing a volunteer work. The first group of students had the opportunity to choose from a few subjects; in the second, he posed a long list of possibilities.

    Note. The number of students who wrote the essay was significantly higher in the first group. Choosing from limited options was easy for them. However, choosing from a large repertoire of subjects led the students to stop the process. The majority preferred to postpone the decision and, therefore, ended up abandoning the possibility of raising a mark.

    With these kinds of experiments, it was possible to show how the excess of options produced paralysis instead of motivating to action.


    Excessive options in all cases produced stress (to a greater or lesser degree). The fact of having to think about the “crossroads” more than desired (taking into account the situation and the possible gains) led the person to stop attending or to take his responsibilities (I do not buy / I cannot choose a dish / I make no effort to do any work to raise the rating).

    The same can happen to us in our daily life. When we wander between too many options, we end up bored and even exhausted. The result is non-action (“I’ve seen so many dresses that I don’t know which one I prefer, now I doubt more than at the beginning”).

    Doubt is known to everyone. One of the strategies for dealing with doubt is to define the number of options and draw up concrete action plans. Of course, we can always find new alternatives, new strategies, new lines of attack, but …

    … is this still what we need? How much stress does the wide array of options produce in our minds? What helps us close chapters and what makes it difficult for us? Answering these questions slows down thinking and limits the range of possibilities.

    What parallels can we draw between Schwartz’s experiences and the psychotherapy intervention?

    Since psychotherapy, we work to broaden the patient’s worldview, to detect untested solutions and to propose new intervention strategies. However, we will always work with consideration of efficiency and saving vital energy. Grounding in endless possibilities leads the person to enter a loop and stay in contemplation instead of moving towards decision.

    This goes for fear of making a mistake: resignation is the key element. The more exceptions there are, the more stress and anxiety the decision generates.

    We ask ourselves again … Why?

    It’s not about the things we choose, but all the things we lose when we choose. The possibilities are exclusive alternatives and no one can take two paths at the crossroads simultaneously. If I choose to take the second rib steak, I don’t choose to eat the duck. It is true that another day, I will be able to return to the restaurant and eat it, but for the moment, I have to choose what to eat (“Will the entrecote be well done?”, “Will I like the sauce that accompanies the duck? ”).

    The truth is, the more dishes there are, the more chances I have to “make a mistake” and not choose the best culinary job, I give up more flavors and experiences. This trivial decision can result in many more important decisions (study centers, careers, job offers, etc.).

    What does renunciation bring to our lives?

    Renunciation is part of the maturation process of the human being. Choosing increases our confidence and self-esteem. By giving up options, we become capable people, otherwise we would have an excess of physical and emotional burden that would make our path much more expensive.

    To make things easy to decide is to consider the options according to our reality. The possibilities can be many, but it will be our responsibility to consider only those that meet our needs and those of those around us.

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