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Refuting the paradox of choice

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Tuesday, Nov 24, 2009

The idea that consumer choice is freedom is perhaps the quintessential piece of consumerist ideology, so perhaps it is no surprise that economic pundits like Tim Harford, writing in the FT, would be eager to report the evidence against it.

The average of all these studies suggests that offering lots of extra choices seems to make no important difference either way. There seem to be circumstances where choice is counterproductive but, despite looking hard for them, we don’t yet know much about what they are. Overall, says Scheibehenne: “If you did one of these studies tomorrow, the most probable result would be no effect.” Perhaps choice is not as paradoxical as some psychologists have come to believe. One way or another, we seem to be able to cope with it.

Interesting that the paradox of choice is here presented as something the psychologists merely want to believe—is this projection at work? Tyler Cowen, who declares that “the so-called paradox of choice is one of the most overrated and incorrectly cited results in the social sciences,” links to Harford’s story approvingly.

Whether you accept the refutation (or the original observation) seems a question of whether you trust the methodology of these sorts of studies. Mine is undermined by the fact that the studies themselves have yielded contradictory results: Harford reports, “Neither the original Lepper-Iyengar experiments nor the new study appears to be at fault: the results are just different and we don’t know why.” I’m skeptical generally of efforts to replicate real-world psychology in artificial lab experiments. The arbitrariness of the tasks subjects are asked to participate in, and their abstraction from lived social reality, means they have turned off their self-consciousness to a degree and are behaving artificially, different from how they would act in a situation with true social implications and ongoing ramifications for their self-concept.

Determining the psychological impact of the number of choices is a proxy war for whether or not restrictions should be placed on markets in order to benefit consumers—or to even encourage them to be less of consumers. I don’t think any amount of research can ultimately arbitrate what is an ideological question.

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