PC Forum: The paradox of choice

PC Forum kicked off this afternoon with Esther's introduction of the "users in charge" theme.  It's a new culture of catering to users--not big banks, advertisers and others who have wielded power in the past, Esther said.
Written by Dan Farber, Inactive

PC Forum kicked off this afternoon with Esther's introduction of the "users in charge" theme.  It's a new culture of catering to users--not big banks, advertisers and others who have wielded power in the past, Esther said. 

The first speaker, Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More, discussed the implications of having greater freedom and more choices than we know what to do with (such as 285 varieties of cookies, 175 salad dressing in a supermarket or a phone that has more features than a Swiss Army knife). People are interested in capability rather than usability when they walk in a store, Schwartz said. "People like a lot of stuff in their stuff. But after using products with mulitple features, preferences switch to simpler models," he said. The problem is that people don't seem to know this about themselves, "They want capability but get satisfaction out of usability--at the moment there is a tradeoff between the two."

Now you have multiple choice in other areas of life, such as where when and how you work. "Even personal identity is a matter of choice--you can reinvent yourself in almost wide variety of ways," Schwartz said. The punchline: Paradoxically too much choice can be paralyzing, from buying jam and speed dating to mutual fund investing (too many fund choices, investment goes down). "With all the choice peope may do better, but they will feel worse," Schwartz said. It's too easy to imaging the alternatives could have worked better--regret and anticipated regret kick in. As you enjoy what you choose, you imagine attractive features of what you passed up--the opportunity cost rising in consciousness can be completely debilitating.

Another problem is the escalation of expectations. With more choices, one of them must be 'perfect.' The result is disappointment because there isn't a perfect choice. When expectations were low, something could happen that exceeded expectation. That's not possible in affluent West, partly driven by having so much choice. The secret to happiness is to have modest expectations, Schwartz concluded.

Self blame is another way in which choice can be poisonous to people. When you have 200 pairs of jeans or 2000 colleges to choose from, its your fault if its not a good choice, Schwartz said. He attributed the explosion of clinical depression to having too much choice.

How to deal with this problem? The more options, the more people are able to help, by providing intelligent, even personalized, filters, Schwartz said. He also contended that the single biggest policy change to effect change is for people to pay attention if folks choose nothing (such opt out forms), and engeinner things so that they choose what is in best interest with default options.

Philip Rosedale of Linden Labs (Second Life) followed Schwartz and described how the digital environment of Second Life is more expression. You create things more than pick things. Most things are custom made and most users are custom makers. Esther asks--should Second Life outlaw mass production? Rosedale responded that the cost of goods near zero so less incentive to get to mass produced scale like a Starbucks. "People are fascinated by the opportunity to create another life," Rosedale said.

Esther wrote in the PC Forum program notes: "In theory, members of Second Life have almost infinite choices about how to look, what to wear, what to create, how to run a business. . .although they also face virtual constraints, including zoning regulations and community standards."  Rosedale noted that Second Life isn't a set of horizontal, prepackaged set of choices.  "Second Life is a lean forward environment, you are always engaged and trying to manipulate the environment because you can," Rosedale said.  

Ajit Balakrishnan, founder of Rediff.com, India’s leading portal, described how India's citizens are undergoing a cultural change embodied in more choices and legal reforms to enable Internet commerce.  "The arrival of the Intenret coincided with the advent of consumer economy as well, Balakrishnan said. There are more choices of cars, consumer goods, loan options and places to shop. The largest amount of traffic is for [shopping] comparisons," he said. "For centuries people have told us to be austere and not consume--the notion of less is better from Barry Schwartz's remarks resonates."  However, he said that people in India are now enjoying the discovery of choices, and bringing pile of money to new shopping centers. "We are in the early stage of the disease Barry talked about," he said.

Balakrishnan also talked about the cell phone replacing the PC. It's far more accessible to the population than a PC and growing in capabilities.

After the three solo presentations/interviews, the three speakers joined Esther on the stage. Schwartz wasn't sure if the explosion of mindless consumerism is controllable. "The solution to the problem is not eliminating choice," he said. "Time and attention should be paid figuring out how to snap what together. I'd set it up a package of what most people want--the package most peope will accept."


From left: Barry Schwartz, Philip Rosedale, Ajit Balakrishnan, Esther Dyson

Schwartz considered Second Life an extreme version in which everything you do says something to your fellow participants about who you are. It's not the trappings and roles you inherit," Schwartz said. He also noted, for what it's worth, that working class Americans are happy when their neighbor buys the same car as they have, but upper class people are unhappy in that circumstance. What they buy is an expression of who they are and defines them distinctly. To the extent people define themselves by what they buy, not what they do, it's less likely they will delegate making choices to others, he added.

"In Second Life there are a lot of self-imposed constraints. It maybe that in an environment of massive choice we maximize well being by enforcing contraints," Rosedale said. Second Life isn't inundated by a massive blitz of advertisements.  "I think delegation is inefficient. It feels dangeours and complicationed. The tao of Second Life is coming up with an adaptive policy, coming up with limited number of things they want to delve into," Rosedale added. 

Second Life and other virtual communities could be useful in aiding people in their 'real' lives. The most popular form of therapy today is cognitive behavior therapy, Schwartz said. People have habitual ways of thinking of the world and their problems in it. He suggested that Second Life could be one way of practicing to defeat destructive tendencies individuals have in the analog world.

"[In India] right now,  particularly young people are embracing consumerism. Maybe I'm not as disillusioned about choice as you are here,"Balakrishnan said.

The troubling thing about saying there is too much choice or delegating outside the marketplace is how to define proper number of choices and who are the authorities. Choice can be framed with default choices to manipulate an outcome, Balakrishnan said. "I'd rather leave it to marketplace to sort it out," he said.

Choice isn't always good or bad, Schwartz said. Choice is a disaster in the case of privatizing social security, he offered. "Mostly we are on our own to find our way through this morass, one person at a time."

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