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Paradoxes of Choice


I used to be the type of person who would agonize over the menu at a restaurant, trying to decide upon the perfect dish to order. That changed a few years ago after reading The Paradox of Choice, a pop-psychology book. Now I am the first person to choose something after quickly scanning the options: what I chose is less important than how I choose. I am rarely disappointed with my choice – what sounds good usually ends up being fine. But there is no more weighing, analysis, and fraught decision making – there is simply the whim of fancy that decides.

Of course, people feel that we need conscious deliberation in our lives. We need to make sure that our choices are correct – we need to make sure that we choose the best option. The sort of person who’s always trying to make the best possible choice is called a “maximizer”. The sort of person who settles for “good enough” and thereby cuts down on the cognitive costs of decision making is called a “satisficer”. Maximizers are concerned with the best possible option, while the satisficer has a set of criteria, and when they are met, that is good enough (even if better possibilities exist). The conclusion of The Paradox of Choice is that being a satisficer actually maximizes utility (or value). Paradoxically, being content with not making “the best possible decision” is the way to maximize happiness. The more options we have, and the more deliberation, the less happy we are with our choice. Do not choose the option with the highest expected utility, because the act of finding such an option lowers it’s utility. Choosing an option that matches a criteria of acceptable utility is how one (paradoxically) maximizes utility.

This seems to make sense for many types of consumer choice, but it does not apply when the best choice is what one is directly seeking – such as answering a math problem. Barry Schwartz’ point is that a society that is full of freedom and choice does not in fact lead to happier people. Unlimited choice and freedom do not actually make us happier. Here is a quote from Schwartz’ Paradox of Choice:

Now think about the relation between helplessness and choice. If we have choices in a particular situation, then we should be able to exert control over that situation, and thus we should be protected from helplessness. Only in situations where there is no choice should vulnerability to helplessness appear. Quite apart from the instrumental benefits of choice—that it enables people to get what they want—and the expressive benefits of choice—that it enables people to say who they are—choice enables people to be actively and effectively engaged in the world, with profound psychological benefits.

At first glance, this may suggest that opportunities for choice should be expanded wherever possible. And because modern American society has done so, feelings of helplessness should now be rare. In 1966, and again in 1986, however, pollster Louis Harris asked respondents whether they agreed with a series of statements like “I feel left out of things going on around me” and “What I think doesn’t matter anymore.” In 1966, only 9 percent of people felt left out of things going on around them; in 1986, it was 37 percent. In 1966, 36 percent agreed that what they thought didn’t matter; in 1986, 60 percent agreed.

There are two possible explanations for this apparent paradox. The first is that, as the experience of choice and control gets broader and deeper, expectations about choice and control may rise to match that experience. As one barrier to autonomy after another gets knocked down, those that remain are, perhaps, more disturbing. Like the mechanical rabbit at the dog-racing track that speeds along just ahead of the dogs no matter how fast they run, aspirations and expectations about control speed ahead of their realization, no matter how liberating the realization becomes.

The second explanation is simply that more choice may not always mean more control. Perhaps there comes a point at which opportunities become so numerous that we feel overwhelmed. Instead of feeling in control, we feel unable to cope. Having the opportunity to choose is no blessing if we feel we do not have the wherewithal to choose wisely. Remember the survey that asked people whether they would want to choose their mode of treatment if they got cancer? The majority of respondents to that question said yes. But when the same question was asked of people who actually had cancer, the overwhelming majority said no. What looks attractive in prospect doesn’t always look so good in practice. In making a choice that could mean the difference between life and death, figuring out which choice to make becomes a grave burden.

To avoid the escalation of such burdens, we must learn to be selective in exercising our choices. We must decide, individually, when choice really matters and focus our energies there, even if it means letting many other opportunities pass us by. The choice of when to be a chooser may be the most important choice we have to make.


Before publishing The Paradox of Choice Schwartz published an article titled Self-Determination: The Tyranny of Freedom. The modern American desires freedom from constraint, the ultimate refusal to any authority, the ability to make their own rules. Society and cultural prescriptions used to guide social life, and so freedom choice is almost always heralded as a benefit. Schwartz’ argument is that this theory, might not actually hold true in practice.

What is optimal “choice architecture”? For Schwartz, it is not unguided limitless choice. In the book Nudge Richard Thaler argues for a government that is paternalistic, where certain choices are emphasized over others. This is but one answer to to the question “how should we restrict choice for our own happiness?”.

The most pejorative strawman for restricted choice would be fascism. This sort of fascism is illustrated in classic totalitarian novels like 1984. The same yearning for a great leader to take us away from ourselves, is what makes some narratives so attractive. The movie Fight Club stands as a classic example. Take this cliché and over-quoted speech that Tyler Durden gives in the basement:

Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see it squandered. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables – slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

Most people see this as an anti-consumerist polemic. But I think it’s aimed firmly at the paradox of choice – even with unprecedented freedom, we won’t grow up to become millionaires, movie gods, and rock stars. There are no guiding events like a great war, there is an only an endless field of choices, options, and decisions. We are unsatisfied because there exists a sequence of choices that would lead us to our “best self” but we will (almost certainly) never find that self. What Tyler Durden represents is the charismatic figure who takes us out of ourselves – we are no longer responsible, we no longer have to make petty decisions. Tyler Durden abolishes the self, we become just another “space monkey” on a holy crusade.

Fight Club is every teenager’s favorite movie because it is all about escaping ourselves – escaping the “tyranny of freedom”. The ideology of anti-capitalism, anti-consumerism, is really just about the fact that we are sick of being individuals responsible for every decision we make – decisions that don’t lead anywhere besides an average life with Ikea furniture. Tyler Durden is the charistmatic leader who gives shape to our decisions, who adds constraints to the field of choice.

There is obviously a deep connection to existentialist thought – given that we are free agents, who exist without given purpose or meaning, how do we shape our lives? When our basic needs are met, and our lives are centered around the top of Maslow’s hierarchy, there is an explosion of choice. As a maximizer, this great abundance of choice only emphasizes existential uncertainty. This opens one up to movements and charismatic leaders who can help us “escape ourselves”.

This pressure of maximizing one’s life is the existential panic that Tyler Durden addresses. We cannot become our best selves no matter how hard we try. The questions that dominate so much of our cognitive processes often don’t lead anywhere, beyond choosing the color of your business card – our lives cannot be maximized. How do we cope with that fact?


The default mode network (DMN) is a large scale brain network that’s “shown to be active when a person is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest, such as during daydreaming and mind-wandering… it is negatively correlated with other networks in the brain such as attention networks”. It has been linked to depression and maladaptive daydreaming. When a person zones out during class, or has random thoughts pop into their head while reading, they can thank the DMN. The DMN is active when there is perceptual decoupling – when we are no longer attending to our perceptions, but on ruminations about the past, future, or when we are lost in fantasy. Lateral thinking The DMN bombards us with a constant stream of information, thoughts, ideas, and ruminations. This is sometimes referred to as “monkey mind” in Buddhist meditation. This mind is never satisfied and is always chasing after whatever catches it’s attention.

During meditation, one can witness the struggle to remain perceptually coupled to breath sensations. One’s thoughts are always competing for attention, even with a firm commitment to stay focused on the breath. Over time, the meditator gains insight into the process of distraction and re-focusing through a first-hand experience of the process. This insight allows one to access meditative states more consistently and with greater ease. The phenomenology of meditation is one of peace, and well calibrated mental energies. The Mind Illuminated contains some helpful diagrams of this process.


Meditation and amphetamines have both been shown to reduce activity in the DMN. Amphetamines are often prescribed for patients with ADHD. The mechanism of action might lie in the dampening of an overactive DMN. The phenomenology of ADHD is often characterized by exhausting internal chatter – the use of these drugs can be greatly relieving.

There seems to be some correlation between amphetamines and fascist thought even it is only thematic. The philosopher Nick Land has been fundamentally altered by stimulants, and is now a major thought-leader in the Neo-Reactionary Movement. The focusing and “simplifying” properties of amphetamines might provoke one to think about a simpler form of society and government. The rise of a liberal society where anyone can self-define as they wish, might be seen as the source of the illness which amphetamines temporarily cure. Of course, it might just simply be amphetamine psychosis.

The benefit of meditation over amphetamines, is that meditation is a practice based on insight, while amphetamines is treating symptoms with pharmacology. Meditation gets at the root, while amphetamines is merely a temporary fix: in the words of Richard Davidson, it’s the difference between altered states and altered traits. Meditation and drugs are popular treatments for the cognitive and neurological aspect of The Paradox. Traditionally, such ideas about designing our own lives through will and choice was addressed by religion and theology.


The idea that we cannot help ourselves is not new – it is one of the oldest formulations of the problems of suffering. The harder we try to help ourselves, the more we create suffering. The Buddhist idea of not-self (skt. Anatman) can be understood in this way: that when we stop self-constructing and craving we can find peace. However, we still attain awakening through our own effort and actions – we are responsible for our salvation. The practice of meditation, or ethics, can bring one closer to enlightenment.

Not all forms of Buddhism are like this. For example, Japanese Pure Land Buddhism has a very different idea of awakening. Specifically, the idea of self-overcoming has been replaced with the idea that we can’t save ourselves – we must rely on the salvic powers of a higher being. This being is often Amitabha Buddha to whom the sacred phrase (Jap. Nembutsu) is offered in the hopes of rebirth in Amitabha’s pure land.

In Japenese Buddhism, there are two ways to reach liberation or enlightenment: jiriki, or self-power, and tariki, or other-power. Zen Buddhism, and other religious strains that emphasize self-cultivation (skt. Bhavana,) favor jiriki, enlightenment achieved through dedicated practice and striving. In Pure Land, we cannot help ourselves, all striving is delusion and we must put all our faith in the hands of Amitabha through the practice of nembutsu. The great Pure Land teacher Shinran said “if even the good person attains birth in the Pure Land, how much more so the evil person” (foreshadowing Tyler Durden’s “may I never be complete, may I never be perfect”). Shinran said this, because striving, and the desire to be saved through one’s efforts, are actually harmful. Evil people do not strive to save themselves but rely on the grace of Amitabha.

There was no practice whatsoever which a sentient being can perform which would bring salvation. This was true also of the practice of the recitation of the name of Amida Buddha, the standard practice of the Pure Land school. The reason was that the performance of any practice was still spawned in the web of passion and self-seeking. It always had an ulterior motivation i.e., to save oneself. This concern for self was a mark of the attachment and delusion of beings concerning their essential natures. - Alfred Bloom in Shinran’s Gospel of Pure Grace

Martin Luther, the seminal protestant figure and author of the reformation also believed in other-power. For Martin Luther, God’s most important aspect (and the way to heaven) was through his grace, grace that was only granted outside ourselves. This salvific grace was granted through trusting faith in god not through any cooperative act with god. We cannot save ourselves. In theological terms, Martin Luther and other protestants placed emphasis on the grace of god rather than on the works of man.

The protestant idea of abandoning self-power can be found in Alcoholics Anonymous which was founded by a group of protestants in the American Midwest. The idea remains the same, you led yourself astray (into alcoholism), and when you tried to fix yourself, you failed – now is the time to give up trying to fix yourself and accept the divine grace of a higher power. The basic text of AA, colloquially called “The Big Book” espouses the doctrine of other-power explicitly.

If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago. But we found that such codes and philosophies did not save us, no matter how much we tried. We could wish to be moral, we could wish to be philosophically comforted, in fact, we could will these things with all our might, but the needed power wasn’t there. Our human resources, as marshaled by the will, were not sufficient; they failed utterly. Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves

Religious movements of grace and other-power represent the ultimate solution to the paradox of choice. The pressure to achieve “the highest good”, or salvation, is completely lifted, since a person cannot do anything to achieve it. One must quit making their own choices, the optimal choice will be made for them. In this case, the religious to answer to “How can we maximize our life?” is “We can’t. But god can. You must give up”.


Choice, autonomy, individual freedom are seen as axiomatic goods. But is that the case? The reason why the paradox of choice is a paradox, is because we think more freedom, more choices, more autonomy is always better. And yet, it appears that this is not always the case – the more decisions and choices we face, the less happy we are with the result.

But in theory more options grant more possibilities for action, and therefore more freedom. More freedom means that we get to decide who we are as people. Fascism and the complete erasure of freedom is clearly an evil, but is unlimited choice really the highest good?

I think Barry Schwartz makes the case that there is a better possibility than unrestricted choice. We want to minimize cognitive computation and sidestep analysis paralysis. We don’t want to constantly be weighing all possibilities, we want be our choices to be constructively constrained. We should be happy, and not worry about being our “happiest self”. The best way to do this is not clear.

Religious ideas of “other-power” and “grace” remove the responsibility to create our own lives. In a secular age, the wish to be free of this burden can be found in the charismatic leaders of Hollywood, people like Tyler Durden. Finally, the turn towards minimalism, meditation, and drugs, can be seen as ways in which we don’t want to be endless consumers of our own rabid minds. We want our minds to become more peaceful, contained, and not endlessly analyzing the problems of the past and future. To me meditation seems like a sane practice that grants individuals freedom, but not unrestrained mind babble.

The individual, rather than society as a whole, might be the best level to approach the downsides of choice. We should always have the ability to drown in freedom, rather than suffocate in constraint. What modulates our choices should be our own recognition of this dilemma, and practices that aid concentration on choices that matter. Questions about the color of a couch, or what to eat at a restaurant, should be considered trivial. Some things are more important than whether to eat spaghetti or pizza, and whatever helps us recognize that fact should be considered useful.