Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies


Knowing what we want — more choice (or too much)?

Posted on February 07, 2006 by daviding

In coevolving technology and business, do we actually know what we want?  This may come with a presumption that more choice is better than less choice.  In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz suggests that we may think that we’re going to be happier with more choice, but in fact, we’re probably not.

I first listened to the audio recording of Barry Schwartz’s talk, "Less is More" at the Pop!Tech 2004 conference.  (For a visual approach to the content, look at the sketch by Peter Durand of Alphachimp Studio). The idea is simple, but Schwartz isn’t just a journalist, he’s a professor of psychology.  I’ve now been reading the book.  Since I’m a reader of footnotes, the book provides a lot of foundations from psychology.

In the prologue of the book, Schwartz starts off with references to political philosophy Isaiah Berlin, on the distinction between "negative liberty" and "positive liberty".  He then cites Amartya Sen (Nobel laureaute in Economics) and Development as Freedom.  Schwartz argues that:

  1. We would be better off we we embraced certain voluntary constraints on our freedom of choice, instead of rebelling against them.
  2. We would be better off seeking what was "good enough" instead of seeking the best (have you ever heard a parent say, "I want only the ‘good enough’ for my kids"?).
  3. We would be better off if we lowered our expectations about the results of decisions.
  4. We would be better off if the decisions we made were nonreversible.
  5. We would be better off if we paid less attention to what others around us were doing.  [p. 8]

Chapter 1 describes the choices we (in the first world) have in shopping, and Chapter 2 lists the choices we have in utilities, health insurance, retirement plans, medical care, beauty, work, love, religion, and identity.  From there, the book delves more a deeper discussion, leading off with "Deciding and Choosing" — much related to the prospect theory of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

Schwartz leads his narrative (mostly) through a world of goods and services from which we make selections.  If you look a little more deeply into the "Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk" published in Econometrica in 1979, you’ll see a more time-oriented view, where there’s choices between a "sure thing" right now, and a risky outcome in the future.

Recentering the discussion on coevolving technology and business, the paradox of choice and prospect theory may mean that even though we could figure out the end that we really want, that end may not be rationally appropriate (since there’s risk in an uncertain future).  And business is all about rationality, right?

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