Intangibles of Choice…A Paradox

The perception of enjoyability and/or personal importance one may attach to the privilege of having choice and options…from which to choose and select, is an intangible, sometimes an asset, but as one examines the issue further, too many choices and/or options can manifest as liabilities.

  • Peoples perceptions associated with – how people perceive choices and options are powerful and influential intangibles!

According to social psychologist Barry Schwartz…the perception of happiness and enjoyability one presumably receives when they have numerous or a seemingly infinite number-range of choices and/or options from which to choose, is a misconception.

Schwartz endeavors to advance this misconception, initially…in the context of a supermarket where there may be as many as 300+ variously different (branded) salad dressings, hair shampoos, breakfast cereals, and/or soups, a consumer may select, where he notes…

  • there is a long-held belief (doctrine) that many Western industrial societies develop on the premise that societies seek to maximize the welfare of its citizens. i.e.,
    • one, is to maximize individual freedoms through maximizing (individual) choice and options.

Presumably, the more choices – options people have within their society…be it salad dressings, automobiles, or chewing gum flavors, it translates to perceptions of greater personal freedom. And, the more (personal) freedom one believes they derive from the existence – presence of choices and options to select from, the greater (personal) happiness they have.

In this instance, the perceived linkage between (personal) options – choices and happiness…Schwartz believes, is so deeply embedded in social mindsets that, for most it would not occur it was untrue.

But, is the perception of (having) choices and options intangibles’…which citizens consistently prefer in every circumstance?, and, is having – the availability of choice, always a good thing?

Absolutely, Schwartz claims…it’s largely because people enjoy (want) the perception they are (a.) in control, and (b.) have some autonomy – independence in selecting – choosing among options-choices.

  • The misconception arises, Schwartz claims, when people assume that since choice is good, it must always be good!

There are, of course, some downsides – paradoxes to having choices and, Schwartz says, is that our perceptions (presumed preference) for choices and options, can, and not infrequently do, produce…

  • a sense of (personal) paralysis with respect to distinguishing and selecting options, and
  • not (personal) liberation, freedom, or autonomy as initially perceived.

When people (prospective buyers-consumers) are consistently presented with arrays of options – choices…be it salad dressings, shampoos, automobiles, apparel, etc., to choose from, some people find choice differentiation and selection more difficult and dramatic.

One example Schwartz offers is…a study that was conducted on people (employees) being presented with options for investing in (voluntary) retirement plans.

One finding of this study was that…for every 10 mutual funds an employer offered to employees for investment as a voluntary retirement plan, the rate of (employee) participation went down 2 percent, i.e., options – choices manifested, in this instance, as a paradox, with two effects…

  • if there were 50 mutual funds (options, choices) employees could voluntarily select as their retirement plan option, 10 percent fewer employees actually-participated versus had they only been offered 5 plans to choose from
    • even when an employee manages to overcome the paralysis when confronted with a-large-number of choices – options, they are likely to be less, not more satisfied with their choice
    • compared to circumstances if they had fewer options to choose from.
  • in other words, the more options these employees had available, the easier it became to regret anything at all that was disappointing about the option they chose.
  • too much choice (options) actually influences people (these employees) to perceive themselves as being less free, thus, distinguishing and selecting a particular option, over many others, served as a form of (personal choice) paralysis rather (personal choice) liberation.

Among this studies’ conclusions were that...overall, the percentage of employee (voluntary retirement investment) participation fell as the number of investment options rose. The reason, in large part, was because (a.) it became more challenging for employees to distinguish – decide which investment fund to select, thus, (b.) employees were more likely to delay their decision, or never make-a-decision.

Another breakfast cereal analogy…imagine you have cereal for breakfast every morning, and you alternate between Rice Krispies and Corn Chex. But you really don’t like either. The fact that there are 75+ alternative breakfast cereals available, presumably makes one’s life (perceptually) better.

So, by Schwartz’s logic, when more (e.g., breakfast cereal) options are added to…grocery store shelves, this doesn’t necessarily make anyone worse off because they can ignore the options.  However, the mere presence – availability of options does make some better off.

  • This Schwartz claims is sensible, from a logic perspective and it’s true, psychologically.

Another example occurred recently to Schwartz…when he sought to replace – buy a new pair of jeans and the salesperson began politely asking – presenting (tangible) choices, i.e., do you want…

  • slim-fit, easy-fit, relaxed-fit, button fly, or zipper fly, stonewashed, or acid washed, or distressed, boot-cut, or tapered?

Following Schwartz’s introduction to the 10 ‘jean type’ options available...he said to the salesperson…

  • ‘I want the kind of jeans that used to be the only kind, but I have no idea what that is’.

So, Schwartz describes how he spent the better part of an hour trying on all the various jean options and eventually walked out of the store with the best-fitting jeans he had ever wore.

Truth is, Schwartz says…I did better in terms of fit, but I felt worse, why?

The reason is that…with all-of-these jean options available, Schwartz’s expectations about how good anyone particular pair of jeans (a.) should be elevated, but what Schwartz actually walked out of the store with, (b.) was merely good, (c.) it wasn’t perfect!

So, Schwartz’s argument is…that’s sort of what 21st century affluent Western society is like, the perception that anything – everything is possible. But, is that a good thing? The answer, Schwartz surprisingly suggests is…

  • ‘the assumptions people make, is that, no, it’s not a good thing. Choice within constraint is essential…choice without constraint can paralyzing’.

There’s no question, claims Schwartz…that (a.) some choice is better than having (b.) no choice. But it doesn’t necessarily – consistently follow that (c.) more choice is better than some choice.

The Secret To Happiness Is…

Today’s increasingly affluent citizens in the industrialized countries have variously perfected this expectation…ala the best one can hope for is that stuff is as good as one expects it to be. Practicing this, one will seldom, if ever, be surprised because their expectations have been exceeded….

  • thus, the secret to happiness is sustaining low expectations.
  • however, having low expectations may maybe too pessimistic.
  • so, instead,  the secret to happiness is to sustain realistic expectations.
  • and if one is going to err, err on the low side.

It’s really a nice feeling when we find ourselves pleasantly surprised. On the other hand, it really sucks to be disappointed, Schwartz notes.

Michael D. Moberly St. Louis [email protected] ‘The Intangible Asset Blog’ since May 2006 ‘where one’s attention span, intangible assets, and solutions converge’

Readers are invited to explore other blog posts, papers, and books I have published at

This post was adapted by Michael D. Moberly from a ‘Ted Radio Hour’ program on misconceptions ( and the fine work of Dr. Barry Schwartz, a social psychologist, the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less,


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