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The Mechanics of Choice: More Isn't Always Better


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Alex Chadwick. A recent paper in the journal Psychological Science begins by quoting a proverb: "Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get."

BRAND: That lesson is examined in the Psychological Science paper, which is all about the psychology of choice. As NPR's Alix Spiegel reports, social scientists are unraveling the way we make choices, and then how we live with them.

ALIX SPIEGEL reporting:

Most people in our society like to have lots of choices. But in Bara Sapir's(ph) quest for excellence, she leaves no stone unturned.

Ms. BARA SAPIR: You know, maybe most people will consider the top ten choices. I might look at the top fifty.

SPIEGEL: While Sapir's conscientious about even the trivial choices in her life, it's fair to say that she's especially vigilant about the big ticket items: her college, her work, and now the very important question of who to choose as a life partner.

Ms. SAPIR: Dating is a part-time job. It could be fun, but it's a part-time job.

SPIEGEL: At 36 years old, Bara Sapir has spent a number of years at this work, dutifully dating and weighing the relative merits of potential mates.

Ms. SAPIR: It's like okay, well this guy, this guy isn't Jewish, but he's got all these traits and I feel really great with him. This guy is Jewish, and I feel really good, but I don't know if I feel good enough, and I don't really know if he's on the same page as I am.

SPIEGEL: And while this process has yet to yield concrete results, Sapir's pretty confident about her approach.

Ms. SAPIR: I like knowing what's out there.

Mr. JASON BOOZY(ph): Oh, yeah. Definitely. I've dated a lot of different women in my life.

SPIEGEL: Like Bara Sapir, 35-year-old Jason Boozy(ph) has spent a lot of time trying to find someone to spend his life with. And through most of his twenties, Boozy, like Sapir, was convinced that dating a lot of people was the best way to insure that his ultimate decision would last. It helped him, he says, clarify what he did and didn't like. But recently, Boozy has had second thoughts.

Mr. BOOZY: I'm not really sure that it's really the best way. But I kind of feel like there's no way I can get out of that, because that's the way it works. And I don't know how to step out of that system.

SPIEGEL: In their new study, doing better but feeling worse, psychologist Sheena Iyengar, Rachel Wells, and Barry Schwartz make the case that people like Boozy and Sapir, people who feel compelled to consider a wide range of options usually derive less pleasure from their ultimate choice than people who are satisfied looking at a more limited set of options. The study's lead author, Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University, has literally made a career of studying choice. Her interest in the subject began in graduate school when an upscale grocery store opened near her home and quickly became the talk of the town.

Professor SHEENA IYENGAR (Columbia University): I mean, it had something like--well, it had over 300 different types of jams, and 250 different types of mustards.

SPIEGEL: For every product on the shelf, there was just an explosion of options. And Iyengar found the store incredibly exciting to visit. Despite this attraction, she rarely bought anything, which puzzled her.

Prof. IYENGAR: Kind of made me think, you know, there's more to this notion of choice than what psychology used to think of.

SPIEGEL: See, for much of the 20th century, American psychology considered the existence of choice a pre-condition of human happiness and emotional health. In study after study, the value of being able to exercise choice was clear. For example, the study which proved that when old people were given even minor choices, like whether or not they would take care of a plant, they experienced clear benefits. Sheena Iyengar.

Prof. IYENGAR: They found that giving these elderly patients these trivial choices created better health. So much so that they, on average, lived about six months longer.

SPIEGEL: For psychology then, choice was an absolute good. Choice meant control, and control was critical to well being. That was the story, anyway, until Iyengar. In the late 1990s, Iyengar essentially began an assault on the sacred cow of American culture, an assault which has demonstrated that there are clear limits to the benefits of choice, and fundamentally changed the way that psychologists and economists look at the issue. The recent study in Psychological Science is her latest attack. Its focus is how different choice making strategies effect a person's experience of their ultimate decision. To do the study, Iyengar and her collaborator, Barry Schwartz of Swarthmart, looked at college students who were in the process of job searching.

The first thing they did with the students was to give them a test to figure out how they made decisions. Students who routinely considered a wide range of possibilities were labeled maximizers. Students who preferred to look at only a small number of options were called satisficers. The students were then followed until they landed jobs, and the difference between how well these two groups did in terms of average salary--author Barry Schwartz says--was substantial.

Professor BARRY SCHWARTZ (Social Theory and Social Action, Swarthmore College): Maximizers got starting salaries at $7,500 more than satisficers, which is a lot. You know, it's a 20-25 percent difference.

SPIEGEL: Good news, right? There was just one problem.

Prof. SCHWARTZ: Every measure we could take of their psychological states indicated that they felt worse.

SPIEGEL: Maximizers felt more depressed, more anxious, more stressed, but why? Schwartz, Wells, and Iyengar believe that it is the very act of considering options that ultimately undermines happiness. Again, Barry Schwartz.

Prof. SCHWARTZ: When you consider lots of possibilities, and this is true of jobs, but it can be true of anything, there're going to be a variety of possibilities that you reject that are nonetheless attractive in some way. Normally, there's one alternative's going to be better in some respects, but worse in others. So you're going to be faced with the fact that to choose X, you have to give up something you like about Y. And under those conditions, the more Y's there are, the worse you feel about your choice.

SPIEGEL: According to their research, even after making a decision, maximizers appeared to be haunted by the possibility that somewhere out there there was a better option, a perfect solution. And this notion of an elusive best seemed to poison their experience. This result has led Barry Schwartz, at least, to a very controversial conclusion.

Prof. SCHWARTZ: Happiness of everybody would be increased if they deliberately limited the number of choices they considered.

SPIEGEL: Even if you believed that merely limiting your choices will produce more happiness, as Sheena Iyengar points out, it's probably an impractical solution. Choice is just too much a part of our society.

Prof. IYENGAR: I think the real problem is the market place, right? I mean, regardless of whether you want one choice or just a few choices, whatever domain you pick up has a ton of choices.

SPIEGEL: Which is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Choice is tempting. The ideology of choice: too powerful. Consider Bara Sapir, the 36 old woman who's searching for a partner. She says that despite the possibility that her process is making her unhappy, she can't imagine giving it up. Nor can she imagine settling for less than the partner she has always envisioned.

Ms. SAPIR: No, no. I won't settle. If I decide I want to have children and I am not in a...I'm not in a partnership, then I would do what I would need to do in order to have that child. You know, we have choices now. I have choices now, and there's no, there's no reason for me to settle for anything.

SPIEGEL: Alix Spiegel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alix Spiegel has worked on NPR's Science Desk for 10 years covering psychology and human behavior, and has reported on everything from what it's like to kill another person, to the psychology behind our use of function words like "and", "I", and "so." She began her career in 1995 as one of the founding producers of the public radio program This American Life. While there, Spiegel produced her first psychology story, which ultimately led to her focus on human behavior. It was a piece called 81 Words, and it examined the history behind the removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.