My Favorite Things: Solving the Paradox

Posted inCreative Voices

In 2004, psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote a book that introduced a new idea into culture: The Paradox of Choice. The subtitle: Why More Is Less.

It was a terrific idea. The main point was that the abundance of choices that have sprung up in modern marketplaces (for goods, services, lifestyles) is a source of anxiety. That anxiety is particularly acute, Schwartz argued, for maximizers, people who consistently seek out the optimal outcome in any situation. Perfectionists. Satisficers, on the other hand, (a term introduced by economist Herbert Simon in 1956) engage in a kind of rough cost/benefit analysis and settle for an option they will be satisfied with. Good enough.

The proliferation of options in various merchandise categories is often used as an example of the paradox. There are over 80 brands of bottled water in the US. Hundreds of colas and other flavored soft drinks. How about the bread aisle? So many choices!

The supermarket alone must be a nightmare!

But, is it?

Think about the way you shop in grocery stores. Do you bring a list of things you need? What do you write on that list? Many (most?) of us prepare something like this:

  • Milk
  • Bread
  • Eggs
  • Soup
  • Bacon
  • Potato chips
  • Veggies

And, most of us shopping in our regular supermarket know precisely where to find each of these items. Not only that; most of us know exactly where our favorites are in every aisle. Our carts almost go there on automatic pilot! I don’t need to stand in front of the bread display, scanning every option before making a selection. My brain is focused on one thing: where’s the Levy’s?

We also didn’t need to write down the specifics for each category on our list. We already know which brand of milk or soup we want because we’ve already established favorites in each of those categories. Even “veggies” really only consists of a few favorite kinds. How often do you peruse the rutabagas? Me either.

With the exception of extreme maximizers (those poor souls!), we all establish favorites in each of our retailing categories to simplify our lives. That’s the “job” of favorites: to eliminate the vast majority of choices that the marketplace presents in favor of the ones I’ve already decided upon. Constantly choosing among a wide range of options is very “expensive” for our brain: it uses a lot of cognitive energy. Literally. Favorites streamline the world. Choices made. No anxiety. No paradox.

This is what makes walking the aisles of an American supermarket such a dizzying experience for new arrivals from other countries. (It’s even tough to move to a new city and to have to familiarize yourself with new store layouts!) The overwhelming array of possibilities… unfiltered by the pre-existing set of choices we old hands at shopping have made… is enough to drive new shoppers out of stores in an anxious sweat! That where the paradox of choice shows itself in its full glory! But after a while, we all settle on a set of favorites that make the world a lot more manageable.

Managing choices isn’t just limited to shopping. What TV shows or networks do you watch? How about websites? Music? What about the route you take to work every day? These are all “markets” for your time and attention— options to be considered— that you “resolve” (consciously, or not) and then move on.

Favorites are our way of living the lives we “choose” to live (again, either consciously or not) without constantly having to make new decisions about everything we do every day.

Understanding the rules that govern your choices of favorites is one of the most interesting ways to uncover how your decision-making actually processes work. How persistent are your favorites? Which ones? Which ones aren’t? How did they become favorites? How open are they to influence by others? Whose influence? Who are your real “influencers”? What makes them influential? These are the kinds of questions that can lead to revealing insights about yourself and your world.

Thinking about your favorites and the processes that made them so is a “sneaky” way of understanding the fabric of your everyday life. Instead of asking yourself direct, abstract, questions like, “Who am I?” or “Why do I do what I do?” you use your own favorites and choices as clues to understanding yourself-in-action. And, after all, those action do speak louder…

In the end, the more you understand your favorite things and the ways they become favorites, the more you get to decide if they’re really what you want your life to be like.

Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.

Header photo by Chee Siong Teh on Unsplash