March 1, 2010

The Paradox of Choice

I wanted to quickly illuminate what one might call the flip side of the Open To Choice campaign, which is summarized by this Publishers Weekly review of Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice (2004):

Like Thoreau and the band Devo, psychology professor Schwartz provides ample evidence that we are faced with far too many choices on a daily basis, providing an illusion of a multitude of options when few honestly different ones actually exist. The conclusions Schwartz draws will be familiar to anyone who has flipped through 900 eerily similar channels of cable television only to find that nothing good is on. Whether choosing a health-care plan, choosing a college class or even buying a pair of jeans, Schwartz, drawing extensively on his own work in the social sciences, shows that a bewildering array of choices floods our exhausted brains, ultimately restricting instead of freeing us. We normally assume in America that more options (“easy fit” or “relaxed fit”?) will make us happier, but Schwartz shows the opposite is true, arguing that having all these choices actually goes so far as to erode our psychological well-being.

I haven’t actually read this book, mind you, but this feeling of being “overwhelmed by choice” is an experience I’ve faced daily as a consumer in America. I’m not sure how prevalent it is in Europe, where the Windows 7 browser ballot is being presented to users.

My first thought when I’m confronted by choices that I don’t fully understand—cars, for instance, since I’m not a car person—is to find some kind of primer that tells me what the salient differences between the choices actually are. As some have noted, browsers actually look quite similar to each other, and many of the most important features are shared between them.

I haven’t actually been able to find such a primer online, though. I’m not even sure if many others would find such a thing useful. In any case, I just wanted to bring up this issue that some might face: Okay, I have choices when it comes to browsers, but they all look the same to me. Now what?

Is there something the Mozilla community can do to help them decide? Or is that not the place of the Open to Choice campaign?

© Atul Varma 2020