Sunday, February 10, 2013

Barry Schwartz - The Tyranny of Choice: A Cross-Cultural Investigation of Maximizing-Satisficing Effects on Well-Being


Barry Schwartz is the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College. Among his many books is The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (2005), explains at what point choice - the hallmark of individual freedom and self-determination - becomes detrimental to our psychological and emotional well-being.
Schwartz shows how the dramatic explosion in choice--from the mundane to the profound challenges of balancing career, family, and individual needs--has paradoxically become a problem instead of a solution. Schwartz also shows how our obsession with choice encourages us to seek that which makes us feel worse.

By synthesizing current research in the social sciences, Schwartz makes the counterintuitive case that eliminating choices can greatly reduce the stress, anxiety, and busyness of our lives. He offers eleven practical steps on how to limit choices to a manageable number, have the discipline to focus on the important ones and ignore the rest, and ultimately derive greater satisfaction from the choices you have to make.
His article, The Tyranny of Choice, appeared in Scientific American in 2004; Is Freedom Just Another Word for Many Things to Buy appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2006.

This article appeared in Judgment and Decision Making, vol. 7, no. 6, November 2012, pp. 689-704.

The tyranny of choice: a cross-cultural investigation of maximizing-satisficing effects on well-being

Arne Roets, Barry Schwartz, Yanjun Guan

The present research investigated the relationship between individual differences in maximizing versus satisficing (i.e., seeking to make the single best choice, rather than a choice that is merely good enough) and well-being, in interaction with the society in which an individual lives. Data from three distinct cultural groups (adults), drawn respectively from the U.S. (N=307), Western Europe (N=263), and China (N=218), were analyzed. The results showed that, in societies where choice is abundant (i.e., U.S. and Western Europe), maximizers reported less well-being than satisficers, and this difference was mediated by experienced regret. However, in the non-western society (China), maximizing was unrelated to well-being. Although in China maximizing was associated with more experiences of regret, regret had no substantial relationship to well-being. These patterns also emerged for the individual facets of the maximizing scale, although with a notable difference between the U.S. and Europe for the High Standards facet. It is argued that, in societies where abundant individual choice is highly valued and considered the ultimate route to personal happiness, maximizers’ dissatisfaction and regret over imperfect choices is a detrimental factor in well-being, whereas it is a much less crucial determinant of well-being in societies that place less emphasis on choice as the way to happiness.

1  Introduction

Autonomy and choice in individual decision making are highly valued in western societies. Greater choice can provide two types of benefits. First, it can enable choosers to find exactly what they want. And, secondly, it can enhance their feeling of autonomy and freedom. Nonetheless, various studies have recently cautioned that unlimited choice may come at a price and does not always benefit mental health and well-being (e.g., Botti & Iyengar, 2004, 2006; Botti, Orfali & Iyengar, 2009; Fisman, Iyengar, Kamenica & Simonson, 2006, Iyengar, Jiang & Huberman, 2004; Iyengar & Lepper, 2000; but see Chernev, 2003; Scheibehenne, Greifeneder & Todd, 2009, 2010, for contrary evidence). In this regard, Schwartz (2000, 2004) argued that, as options are added within a domain of choice, several problems may materialize. First, the process of collecting adequate and complete information about options makes choosing more laborious. Second, as options expand, people’s standards for what is an acceptable outcome rise. And thirdly, people may come to believe that any imperfect result is their fault, because, with so many options, they have no excuse for not getting the “right” one. Ironically, however, the more options there are, the more likely it becomes that one does not choose the best option (e.g., Hanoch, Rice, Cummings & Wood, 2009; Hanoch, Wood, Barnes, Liu & Rice, 2011). These problems have become especially relevant in contemporary western societies1, where people are overwhelmed by near-unlimited options in all domains of life. In this regard, Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swinder, and Tipton (1985) already argued that people in western societies feel increasingly uneasy about their life decisions because they are unsure about whether they are making the right choices, and according to Schwartz (2000, 2009), this “excess of freedom” (p. 79) has resulted in a dramatic increase in people’s dissatisfaction with their lives and even in clinical depression.

However, not everybody may be equally sensitive to the problems that come with exposure to an abundance of choice. It has been argued that people who always want to maximize the outcomes of their choices are most vulnerable to the negative effects of too much choice (e.g., Schwartz, 2000; Schwartz, Ward, Monterosso, Lyubomirsky, White & Lehman, 2002). For these people, an excess of options becomes problematic because, to make sure they choose the optimal option, all information about each alternative has to be considered, which is often difficult or even impossible. Moreover, there is likely to be a lingering doubt that the best option has nevertheless been missed, especially when it has not been possible to consider all options. Hence, the potential for regret is ever present, because there is always the possibility that there is a better option “out there”, and failing to find it means a failure to optimize personal satisfaction. On the other hand, people can approach choices differently, using a “good enough” strategy, in which any option that meets a certain threshold of acceptability is considered satisfactory. In this approach to choice, the individual does not have to consider all information about each option, the standards for what is acceptable are more modest (meaning that several options can be satisfactory) and these standards do not depend on the number of options (because adding more options does not suddenly render a good option unacceptable). Moreover, there is no failure in choosing a merely decent, but not perfect, option when adopting a “good enough” approach to choice.

Importantly, Schwartz et al. (2002) found considerable, stable individual differences in people’s dispositional tendency to use either a “good enough” strategy or a “maximizing” strategy. People on either side of this dispositional continuum have been labeled satisficers and maximizers, respectively, and the latter group is expected to be more vulnerable to the problems that arise from an excess of choice. Indeed, various studies showed that maximizers experience higher levels of regret compared to satisficers and that they show lower levels of satisfaction with decisions, and lower levels of well-being more generally. They are more dissatisfied with their lives, less happy, more depressed, and less optimistic (e.g., Chang et al., 2011; Dar-Nimrod, Rawn, Lehman & Schwartz, 2009; Iyengar, Wells & Schwartz, 2006; Purvis, Howell & Iyer, 2011; Schwartz et al., 2002).

1.1  The potential role of society in the relationship between individual maximizing and well-being

Studies showing that a dispositional tendency to maximize (measured with the Maximizing scale, see below) can have detrimental effects on the individual’s psychological well-being have generally been conducted in the U.S., where choice is indeed abundant or even excessive in everyday life and where individual choice and self-determination are considered to be the ultimate way to pursue personal happiness and well-being (Schwartz, 2000; 2004). Importantly, the seminal cross-cultural work on value clusters by Shalom Schwartz (1999) has shown that personal autonomy is not only highly valued in the U.S. but also in Western Europe. Indeed, both cultures consider personal choice as an important path toward happiness, and although in Western Europe, the number of options for some choices in everyday life (e.g., buying cereal) may not be as excessive as in the U.S., the options are certainly also abundant (Henrich, Heine & Norenzavan, 2010). Hence, a negative relationship between maximizing and well-being can be expected in Western Europe as well.

However, Henrich and colleagues (2010) also argued that to understand human psychology, behavioral scientists cannot assume their findings obtained in western countries to be broadly generalizable. In particular, the authors explicitly referred to substantial differences between western versus non-western societies “in the extent to which people value choice and in the range of behaviors over which they feel they are making choices” (p. 71) as prime examples for their assertion. In non-western societies, the context and meaning of individual choice may be quite different from the U.S. and Western Europe; individual choice may be less valued, the number of options in everyday choices (e.g., job or consumer choices) may be more limited, and “personal” choices may to be more strongly directed by the government. For instance, in China, the opportunities to hold state sector jobs and have employer-provided healthcare benefits were greatly influenced by China’s hukou system, which is an institution that controls population movement (Liu, 2005). Moreover, in at least some Asian societies, the very notion of “choice” is less salient and less tied into definitions of self than it is in western societies (e.g., Markus & Schwartz, 2010; Savani, Markus, Naidu, Kumar & Berlia, 2010).

It could be argued that, if choices and options in a society are less abundant, gaining adequate information about the different options to make a choice is actually more achievable. Also, people’s standards for what is acceptable are likely to be more modest and an imperfect outcome can be more easily attributed to the mere lack of a perfect option in the limited set of possible outcomes, or to external factors such as government regulations. Finally, if notions of the self are less tied up with the idea of choice, making imperfect choices is likely to be less consequential. Hence, it seems that many of the choice-related problems leading to reduced well-being may be eliminated by the boundaries of the societal context. When it comes to individual psychological well-being, could it be that maximizers—who are most vulnerable to the negative effects of excessive choice—are actually better off in non-western cultures like China than they are in the U.S. or Western Europe? In particular, it is possible that maximizers in China experience regret over imperfect outcomes just like their counterparts in western societies, but, given that individual choice is less abundant and less valued as the way to happiness, such regret may be less detrimental to general well-being than it is in societies that have this abundance of choice, that attach paramount value to individual choice, and that attribute unhappiness to failure to make the right choices.

1.2  Measuring individual differences in maximizing

To measure individual differences in the tendency to maximize, Schwartz et al. (2002) developed a 13-item Maximization Scale consisting of three facet scales (see Appendix A). The Alternative Search facet scale contains six items and taps into the degree to which an individual keeps searching for “better” alternatives, even after having found a satisfying one. The Decision Difficulty facet scale is composed of four items and refers to experiencing difficulty in everyday choosing and decisions. The High Standards facet scale consists of three items and refers to being satisfied only by meeting the highest standards and choosing the single best option. As a general measure, Schwartz et al.’s (2002) Maximizing Scale has been successfully used in previous research, and individuals scoring high on the scale have repeatedly been found to experience lower levels of well-being (e.g., Chang et al., 2011; Iyengar et al., 2006; Purvis, Howell & Iyer, 2011; Schwartz et al., 2002). Nonetheless, there has been some controversy about the meaning of the scale and its relationships with well-being at the facet level. The High Standards facet in particular, and its relationships with the other facets and with well-being, has been the subject of scholarly debate. Recently, a study by Rim, Turner, Betz, and Nygren (2011) showed that, in line with expectations, the Decision Difficulty and Alternative Search facets were negatively related to optimism and self-regard, but the High Standards facet showed small positive relationships to optimism and self-regard in two samples of U.S. undergraduate students. Similar results were obtained by Purvis et al. (2011), who investigated the relationships of the facet scales with life satisfaction and happiness. Previously, Diab, Gillespie, and Highhouse (2008) had already focused on the High Standards facet, which they believed to be central to the maximizing concept. In particular, they constructed an alternative scale including the three items of Schwartz et al.’s (2002) High Standards facet and six additional items tapping into “a general tendency to pursue the identification of the optimal alternative” (p. 365). Subsequently, in a sample of U.S. undergraduate psychology students, these authors found that, unlike the Schwartz et al. (2002) Maximizing Scale, their alternative scale was unrelated to life satisfaction. Based on these findings, it has been argued that the high standards aspect of maximizing may not have a detrimental effect on well-being (Diab et al., 2008) or that it might even be beneficial (Rim et al., 2011).

Reviewing the literature in this debate and the items of the High Standards facet scale, we believe that the inconsistent findings regarding the effect of high standards on well-being may be due to the inherent ambivalence of the high standards concept and the items used to measure it. Indeed, having high standards in making choices can be interpreted (by both researchers and participants) as “nothing but the perfect choice is good enough for me”, but also as “I’m not easily content and I aim to get the most out of my choices.” These two interpretations are highly reminiscent of a recurrent issue in the related concept of perfectionism. In particular, in his seminal work on perfectionism, Hamacheck (1978) made a distinction between “Normal” and “Neurotic” forms of perfectionism, in which normal perfectionists are those who “derive a very real pleasure from labors of a painstaking effort and who feel free to be less precise as the situation permits” (p. 15), whereas neurotic perfectionists are those “whose efforts—even their best ones—never seem quite enough… and are unable to feel satisfaction” (p. 15). Various labels have been used in the literature (Stroeber & Otto, 2006) to denote this distinction between “positive” (adaptive) and “negative” (maladaptive) perfectionism, but evidence for their opposite effects on a variety of outcomes is plentiful and fairly consistent. In a recent review of the perfectionism literature, Stoeber and Otto (2006) concluded that, despite the mixed findings in previous research, there is overall evidence that the adaptive form of perfectionism is often associated with a variety of positive outcomes and higher well-being, whereas the maladaptive form is associated with negative outcomes and lower well-being. For example, recently, Chang et al. (2011) showed opposite effects of these two forms of perfectionism on life satisfaction. This study also revealed strong relationships between negative perfectionism and maximizing. Yet, most interestingly, weaker but substantial relationships between positive perfectionism and maximizing were obtained as well. Hence, insights from the perfectionism literature may prove helpful for a better understanding of the high standards aspect of maximizing and its ambiguous relationship with well-being.

Although we acknowledge the current controversy about what the Schwartz et al.’s (2002) Maximizing Scale measures, and what a maximizing scale should measure, we believe this three-faceted Maximizing Scale is the most appropriate and most informative for the present research to assess cultural differences in maximizing and its correlates, as well as to provide insights in the debated High Standards facet.

1.3  The present research

The main research objective of the present study was to investigate possible societal differences in the relationship between maximizing and general well-being. In particular, we hypothesized that 1a) there is a strong link between maximizing and well-being in the U.S., consistent with previous research, 1b) this relationship also emerges in other western societies (i.e., Western Europe), and 1c) this link is considerably weaker or even absent in non-western societies (i.e., China). Moreover, we investigated the role of regret—proposed by Schwartz et al. (2002) to be a principle mediator of the detrimental effect of maximizing on well-being—in each society. In particular, we hypothesized that 2a) maximizing increases the likelihood of experiencing regret, largely independent of the society in which one lives, but 2b) in societies were individual choice is abundant and explicitly proclaimed as the way to self-actualization and happiness (i.e., western societies), decisional regret has a much more profound impact on individual well-being than in societies in which choice is less central and less available. Hence, in our hypotheses, we propose that maximizing does not have the same detrimental impact on well-being in China as it has in western societies because, although maximizing increases regret, the experience of regret over imperfect individual choices does not affect the individual’s well-being as much in China as it does in western societies.

We tested our hypotheses for the overall Maximizing Scale, but also for the three Maximizing facet scales individually, and we particularly focused on the High Standards facet that has yielded inconsistent findings in previous research.

Also, whereas previous research usually considered only one or two specific measures related to well-being, we adopted a more comprehensive approach, using five different indicative measures to obtain a stable, global measure of well-being.
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