Sunday, May 23, 2010


I have just finished reading Barry Schwartz's provocative non-fiction book THE PARADOX OF CHOICE. Part overview of research studies, part manifesto, Schwartz seeks to show a causal effect for a known correlation: (1)Americans rate themselves less happy than they did decades ago, and less happy than many other cultures. (2)Americans have far more choices, of everything, than they once did.

Schwartz makes a pervasive case, explaining study after controlled study, some very ingenious, in which people had to choose things and then their behavior and mood were monitored. His overall conclusion is that a plethora of choices -- of candy, sweaters, investments, behavior, movies, cars, mates -- makes people invest more effort in choosing, makes them more dissatisfied with their final choice, and leads to more second-guessing later. But (and this is critical) not for everybody.

Scwartz divides people into two broad groups, which he calls "maximizers" and "sufficers." The former are the people who want the best choice possible. They research, they shop around a lot, they continue looking even after they find something that meets their criteria. After all, there might be something better out there somewhere! These people often end up with better "goods" than most people, but less happiness with those choices. They regret, they experience "buyer's remorse," they think about the road not taken.

The "sufficers," on the other hand, just want something "good enough." They shop around less than maximizers. When they find something that meets their broad criteria, they choose it, commit to it, and don't think any more about the other possibilities. Although this group may end up with goods objectively not as snazzy as the first group's, and although they still can become stressed by the process of choosing, on the whole they are happier than maximizers.

As I read all this, the application of it to writing fiction came to mind. I have had "maximizer" students, who agonize over every word choice in their manuscripts, endlessly revise, and are not happy with the finished story, even if they sell it. They compare their careers to other (a classic maximizer trait), and are frustrated or disappointed. These people don't seem to enjoy writing very much. Meanwhile, other students of mine, although willing to work hard and revise as necessary, can sense when a story is "good enough." They can accept with equanimity that they will never be Tolstoy. These people seem to enjoy writing more and, I've noticed, they publish more, too.

However, if you want to see an area where the maximizer strategy really causes unhappiness, read Lori Gottlieb's book on mate selection, MARRY HIM. A genuine recipe for emotional disaster.

I recommend both books.


Anonymous said...


A.R.Yngve said...

The maximist maxim in mate-seeking is: "I married beneath myself. All women do."

And now the subversive question:
Might then the idea that the whole world ought to be just as free as the USA, with the exact same range of choices, be a little bit sinister after all..?

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Nancy, when are you going to be cranky at the movies again?

bluesman miike Lindner said...

In the introduction to his fine sf novel THE MIND PARASITES, Colin Wilson apologizes to the reader for the "ghastly, flaccid prose" that opens the book. Seems he intended it to be a parody of certain British writers whose names I can't summon. Paraphrasing:
"But what the hell. I'd rather get on to my next book than tinker with it, endlessly."

I do believe that's how =professionals= view the art of fictioneering.

Neal Holtschulte said...

This is one more reason to shop at Aldi.

Adam said...

I remember being impressed by Barry Schwartz's TED talk--his description of a shopper staring at the plethora of salad dressings in the supermarket has stuck with me in particular. I'll take your recommendation; his book is tacked onto my reading list.

For those interested in hearing him speak:

Unknown said...

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halojones-fan said...

Seems to me that the problem is we've gotten used to not getting what we want. We've gotten used to making do with what we're given because there isn't anything else.

The possibility that we could choose to be happy points up the possibility that we aren't actually happy right now--that we've just learned to convince ourselves that we're happy.