Reading: The Paradox of Choice

I ILLed myself a copy of The Paradox of Choice, by Schwartz.  I forget exactly why–something else I was reading referenced it, maybe?  Anyway I’ve seen Schwartz’s TED Talk about this, I remember being intrigued by it, and before bed all I can read is nonfiction if I actually want to get any sleep.  Why not read the book?  Here’s the TED Talk:

And yeah… that moment with the “choice” of gender feels wrong to me, too.  I mean, I see what he’s going for.  But as I understand it, the only “choice” in being trans is whether or not to take the risk of being openly trans.  It’s a choice of being open about your gender, not a choice about your gender.


The TED Talk sums up the book pretty well, except it doesn’t name the concepts of maximizing vs. satisficing.  The idea with those terms is that maximizing involves you looking at each and every option you possibly can in order to make sure you get the very best one.  Satisficing is where you look only long enough to find an option that is “good enough.”

A satisficer won’t go to every clothing store within an hour radius of their home, looking for the perfect sweater; they’ll come up with some criteria and shop only long enough to find a sweater that meets those criteria.  A maximizer, on the other hand, will be the person who keeps finding sweaters that might work, but let’s just go check that other department or that other store or the outlet mall.  Just in case there’s something warmer/softer/cheaper/more exactly your size.

Schwartz ties these ideas in with the concepts he covers in his TED Talk, but the moral of the story is that satisficing is the way to go if you want to retain your sanity.  Figure out what’s good enough, and then don’t waste your time agonizing over whether you could have done better or whether someone else did do better.  You’ll end up happier with your decision even if objectively you could have done better.

He also recommends making “second-order decisions,” or decisions about when to even bother making a decision.  His example is the choice of whether or not to buckle your seatbelt when you get in a car.  Instead of having to choose each and every time you get in a car, just choose to be someone who always wears your seatbelt.

The librarian part of my brain spent the entire book wondering how to apply these concepts to information literacy and/or a library website.  Paralysis due to too many choices is definitely an issue with library websites–it’s the reason so many of us librarians are always going on about making our websites “more like Google.”  To a student who knows little or nothing about libraries, what is there to tell them whether they should search in this box or that box?  Or maybe they should click on this link that sounds like it might be relevant.  But there are these other links, too, which all presumably lead to important research-related tools and content, and–you know, it’s easier just not to pick.

Even once you’ve managed to figure out where to search on a library website, there’s a very good chance that you got hundreds of results.  Librarians used to brand ourselves as the only way you were going to find any information.  Nowadays we’re struggling to rebrand ourselves as the only way you can do a good job coping with the ridiculous number of choices you have in terms of information sources.

This also ties in to Living with Complexity, which I totally need to reread.  There’s that whole idea about how “complex” (having lots of visible options) is not the same as “complicated” (which involves being needlessly complex, hard to use, counterintuitive, etc.)  To a novice user, the difference between the two is incomprehensible, because the novice user doesn’t know how to choose between all the possibilities put forward by the visible options.

Even good library websites are going to be complex.  There are just so many things that people use libraries to accomplish, and so many tools customized to each of those tasks!  The question is, how can librarians tone down that complexity and provide just the right number of choices for non-expert users?  How can we simultaneously provide all of the most powerful tools we have for the users who need and expect them?

Questions, questions, questions.  Maybe I’ll get some answers as I move on to my next bedtime read: The Discipline of Organizing.  Somehow I doubt it… but I want to believe!

A side note about The Paradox of Choice that’s not really what the book is about: This book was published in 2004, and Schwartz spends all kinds of time on his example of the many choices available to anyone who wants long-distance phone service.  You know… for their landline.  I’m having an “I’m old!” moment here, because in my head 2004 is not actually that long ago, but ye gods, landlines?!  It just sounds so quaint.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *