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Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Paradox of Choice: one bad book too many

Depending on how you look at it, the popularity of Malcolm Gladwell and books like Freakonomics is either a good thing (a sign of a popular interest in ideas) or a bad thing (the appetite of the public for the oversimplified).

The bestseller Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, an author striking for the same vein as Gladwell & co., follows the pattern of spreading twenty pages worth of fascinating material into 150 pages of pablum. Pop intellectualism has never been such a snoozefest.

The first lines of Schwartz's prologue are:
About six years ago i went to The Gap to buy a pair of jeans. I tend to wear my jeans until they're falling apart, so it had been quite a while since my last purchase. A nice young salesperson walked up to me and asked if she could help.

"I want a pair of jeans--32-28," I said.

"Do you want them slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy, or extra baggy?" she replied. "Do you want them stonewashed, acid-washed, or distressed? Do you want them button-fly or zipper-fly? Do you want them faded or regular?"

I was stunned.
Who rattles off a speech like this Gap employee supposedly did? Anyone else want to wager that this account has been embellished in Schwartz's retelling?

Writing a memory like this with quotation marks is a common practice these days, but it wouldn't be allowed at a good newspaper. Maybe Schwartz has a preternatural memory, or was transcribing onto a notepad--making research his purpose, not buying jeans, and possibly prompting his subject to give a different, more detailed spiel than she otherwise would. But probably this account has more in common with autobiographical fiction than it does with serious inquiry.

Schwartz is on to something, of course. Whether the array of jeans choices was enumerated in sequence by an unprompted salesperson or just listed on the wall, a customer unfamiliar with the varieties is rightly overwhelmed. But "stunned"? What Schwartz needs isn't fewer choices (which is his book's general prescription) but a guide. A well-written pamphlet or five minutes with an intelligent salesperson could probably make Schwartz appreciate that the jeans he wants don't have to be designed to also accommodate the tastes of skateboarders, heroin-chic hipsters or cheerleaders.

Chapter one opens with the complaint that at Schwartz's "neighborhood supermarket", which is "not a particularly large store", there are no less than 85 different varieties of crackers on sale, 61 varieties of suntan oil and sunblock, 80 different pain relievers, and 285 varieties of cookies. At first I didn't believe him; then I went to my local supermarket, the Pathmark in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and counted cookie varieties; I lost count less than halfway through, at 100. (I still would wager that Schwartz's 285 varieties were found at a store that is, in fact, particularly large.)

It does bother me, though, that Schwartz doesn't seem familiar with the names of some of the items he claims to have counted. "Next," he writes, "in the snack aisle, there were 95 options in all--chips (taco and potato, ridged flat, flavored and unflavored, salted and unsalted, high fat, low fat, no fat), pretzels," etc. "Taco" chips? I think he means tortilla chips, a mistake that an old fogie sitting in his office can be forgiven for making, but which wouldn't be made by someone who actually spent hours counting bags of "tortilla" chips, precious few of which are taco-flavored. Sounds like an unpaid undergrad research assistant at Swarthmore did the legwork; I wonder if she, or Schwartz, rounded up in the process.

The despair of too many choices does not only apply to consumer items. Schwartz laments the loss of university core curricula, explaining that in his day, "You could be fairly certain, if you ran into a fellow student you didn't know, that the two of you would have at least a year's worth of courses in common to discuss." He has a point that there is a downside to the increase in student-directed choice of courses; I liked that at Columbia, I could always trust that other students had a vague familiarity with some of the very same books I skimmed. At the same time, however, I would have preferred to take actual art and music courses than the Columbia core curriculum's survey courses, which in my opinion fail at instilling any sense of love for their respective disciplines.

Schwartz has a point about education, but he's a bit of a stopped clock, correct twice a day but off the mark otherwise. He applies the same reasoning to television, complaining that the abundance of cable channels and VCRs has had the result that "the TV experience is now the very essence of choice without boundaries". I don't think it would be easy to find, among the world's many TV watchers, any who agree with Schwartz that this makes TV worse. If this trend continues, he warns "when folks gather around the watercooler to discuss last night's big TV events, no two of them will have watched the same shows. Like the college freshmen struggling in vain to find a shared intellectual experience, American TV viewers will be struggling to find a shared TV experience."

It gets weirder. "Think about what you do when you wake up in the morning. You get out of bed. You stagger to the bathroom. You brush your teeth. You take a shower... though it is logically true that you could have done otherwise, there is little psychological reality to this freedom of choice. On the weekend perhaps, things are different. You might lie in bed asking whether you'll bother to shower now or wait till later... But during the week, you're an automaton. This is a very good thing."

I'm certainly happy that I can walk down the street with my mind on other things, and breathe without having to will every breath, but is it so clearly great that society encourages me to spend 71% of my life as a robot? Hasn't much of the cultural turmoil of the last 40 years been an attempt of many to refuse to be such a cog, by "dropping out", choosing to pursue dreams instead of fitting in, embracing Eastern philosophies (and mystic philosophies within Western religions) that encourage you to act more willfully and consciously?

Schwartz doesn't think so. "The burden of having every activity be a matter of deliberate and conscious choice," he writes, "would be too much for any of us to bear." This is not a guy who has the same relationship to choice as most people.

I think the proper response to Schwartz's book would be to take its own advice. We already have Gladwell and Freakonomics; why not jettison the superfluous Paradox entirely?

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