Too much choice. (or not)

Choice can lead to paralysis and regret.. I realize that. The issue is learning how to make better choices and enjoying responsibility.

I followed Jesse Keatings blog link on links. It was a video by some psychologist named Barry Swartz.

I started off the talk hoping to learn on how to make better choices and strategies on how to better limit choice down. Instead I felt I got a mind talk on how I should welcome my new fascist masters. My jaw dropped on his diatribe (5:30) that he has to give out less homework because his students biggest concern is that they have to choose if they should marry or not. I am not sure that being married would have allowed me to have any less concerns.

At 7:47, I had to go and take a breather. He asks the question, is having more choice better today or worse and 'rhetorically?' says the answer is yes. He then goes and says we all know whats good about it... and I wanted to shout NO WE DONT. If we knew what was better about it we wouldn't have groups like the Taliban, No-Nothings, or similar fascist organizations. The whole goal of these organizations is about removing choice from people. Choice is bad because it means you might not fit into some selfmade definition of who you are, what you can do, and why you exist.

However sticking it out to 10 minutes started to get into why too many choices can be a problem.. The first is that too many choices can make people freeze because a) they want to make the right choice and b) they don't want to regret making the wrong choice.

And then we slide into how the world is better off without any choices. Because any choice must make people more unhappy and so we should decide for them... and then I decided a nice walk was what I needed. Because we go into how clinical depression is higher because we have to take responsibility for our actions and our choices.

There are parts of the talk that are useful.. but the presentation made it very hard for me not to walk off pissed. I realize that yes having a large number of choices makes me more responsible about things and I have to accept that responsibility if I do not wish to live in a fascist world.

I am not sure this is what Jesse had in mind with that link.. I will say that I understand emotionally what KDE people feel in various discussions over Gnome vs KDE in desktop layout and such.


Yankee said...

For all the sensationalism over his arguments, this wasn't the crux of his book. The fundamental point is that there is a happy balance of choice that enables people to function happily and freely. This makes very little distinction between good and bad, which i've found many psychologists do. If all anyone knew was the Taliban, they might not be doing something 'right', but they may be happy knowing they are going to die for a cause.

My own observation, though, is that in some ways he is right. We generally are faced with way too much choice which can lead to consumer regret. Some people though do quite will with this kind of choice, because the optimum level for everyone is different. You might argue that KDE users prefer more choice than Gnome users.

Of course it's more entertaining when we assume that Gnome developers are power crazed facists and KDE users are bleeding heart liberals.

Stephen Smoogen said...

I would have preferred a talk more in line with his book. Instead the talk seemed to be very much the same arguments I have heard from various groups about why various neo-fascist groups are better for people dressed up with various NewYorker cartoons. And that is what got me angry.

I actually do not like the arguments where people call Gnome people fascists and KDE as liberterians.. I never understood why people acted so angrily in them.. why there was emotional content.. Except after watching his talk.

Yankee said...

Well, that's the crux of it, people are emotionally involved in their decisions, in the decision making process, and whether they have choice.

jensck said...

Interesting that you took the argument straight to political terms like "fascist"... Can that term even apply to Open Source? Fascism implies coercion, but that's the point of OSS licenses: if you're THAT upset about something, change it yourself or pay someone else to. That's an extreme standpoint, but 'fascism' is an extreme label.

Anyway, during the talk, he doesn't primarily promote the elimination of choice, but instead reconsidering whether having as many choices as possible actually makes us happier, or if it only tricks our rational minds into thinking we are (or rather, should be) happier, even when it actually makes us considerably less so.

I'm reminded of a post by Joel Spolsky reacting to the same talk, comparing it with Vista's different shutdown choices in the Start menu:

"Inevitably, you are going to think of a long list of intelligent, defensible reasons why each of these options is absolutely, positively essential. Don't bother. I know. Each additional choice makes complete sense until you find yourself explaining to your uncle that he has to choose between 15 different ways to turn off a laptop.

This highlights a style of software design shared by Microsoft and the open source movement, in both cases driven by a desire for consensus and for "Making Everybody Happy," but it's based on the misconceived notion that lots of choices make people happy, which we really need to rethink.

Stephen Smoogen said...

The reasons I went for the word fascism had nothing to do with free/libre/open software.. any more than the talk was about such things. I linked it to the classic KDE/Gnome debate over who gets to make decisions and how people get so angry and call each other side despots etc.

What I found remarkable was how angry the talk made me.. yes part of it was making me question my 'core Western assumptions' but other parts was that it followed the talking points I remember from an intellectual defence of fascism.

Fascism made the trains run on time, made sure people were married when they were supposed to be, only allowed people into college who were supposed to be there, etc. People weren't happy but they were happier than when they had choices. And if there were problems it was ok because it was the 'worlds' (or least favorite ethnic groups) fault that the jeans didn't fit.

In the end, I agree with your point on Joel Splonsky's post... and with the end part of Dr Swartz's talk about the size of the fishbowl. The issue is on figuring out how to allow people to make their own sized fishbowls... how to better know how to let go of wanting perfect choices. Those are the things that will make overall welfare better. How we try to get there is the conversation I want.