Kevin Ohannessian: What was the impetus for writing The Paradox of Choice?
Barry Schwartz: There were three sources of my impetus to write the book. First, I really did have the experience buying jeans that opens the book. So many choices, the best-fitting jeans I ever had, and disappointment with the entire experience. Second, I watched as my students, some of the most talented and most privileged people in the history of the world, became ever more anxious and unhappy about how to make big life decisions. I concluded that maybe people needed some set of constraints on what is possible. Finally, Sheena Iyengar published an article reporting experiments that showed that too many choices reduce selection. This was the first result of its kind.
Why do you think the book was so successful and resonated with the business world?
I think the book captured a phenomenon that most people in affluent parts of the world have experienced but not put a name to. So I was telling people what they already in some sense knew. As to why it resonated with the business world, that’s a bit more mysterious to me. It’s not as though businesses started reducing the options they offered customers. To the extent that it did resonate with business, I think it’s because business people could recognize it in their own lives.
In the years since the book’s release, do you feel companies have accepted your argument?
I think they have in the abstract, but not too many that I’m aware of have made concrete changes to their business model. Old habits die very hard.
Or do you still see companies overwhelming consumers? Who are the worst culprits?
Mostly, I think the problem is worse now than when I wrote the book. In the tech world, each new generation of gadgets does more things. And how is one supposed to choose from 500,000 apps? Also, it’s basically free to array all the stuff you’re selling online. Brick and mortar operations have all kinds of practical constraints. What has developed, and what we need more of, is organizations that curate for customers.
This is relatively easy to accomplish online; it’s harder in real stores.
Has your writing process changed from when you wrote Practical Wisdom to Paradox to your current writing?
Nope. I start with an idea that is no more than a paragraph long, and expand it slowly into an outline. But I’m always surprised by the directions things take when I actually start writing. My new project, just begun, is to write about incentives. Too little attention is paid to the dark side of incentives. They are anything but a magic bullet.
Psychologists have known this for years but it seems largely hidden from the world of commerce.
What makes a good business book stand out from all the others?
I don’t really read “business books,” and I didn’t think The Paradox of Choice was a business book. I’m very surprised and gratified that the business world thought it was one. What I look for in any book is an argument, based on evidence, that changes the way I think about something important. Very few of the business books I have read do that. The ideas are often obvious, and the evidence is close to non-existent. It’s a slogan among empirical researchers that “data is not the plural of anecdote.”
What are your three favorite business books, and why?
As I said, I don’t really read business books. I like books that apply basic psychological principles to real-world settings in a thoughtful way: Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein, Predictable Irrational by Ariely, or The Happiness Hypothesis by Haidt. All my own books, including the most recent one, Practical Wisdom, have tried to do that. Indeed, I think that Practical Wisdom has much more profound implications for business than The Paradox of Choice did. But so far, the business community hasn’t noticed.
Barry Schwartz is the author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.