Pickin’ Ain’t Easy: The Paralysis of Choice vs. The Clarity of Priorities

November 9, 2007 at 6:17 am | Posted in Advertising, Anderson, Chris - The Long Tail, Books, Communication, Decision making, Free Choice, General, Heath, Chip and Dan - Made To Stick, Marketing, Online marketing, Personal Responsibility, Responsibility | Leave a comment
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I was surprised this month to be in such disagreement with the latest article by Dan and Chip Heath. (Normally their articles are spot-on and I’m sure their book is great.) They fall right in line with the current thinking from the svengali of choice – Barry Schwartz and The Paradox of Choice. Their basic premise is that people are confused or angered exponentially when they are given more things to choose from. If you give a person 3 things to choose from, they can happily make a decision; give them 20 things to choose from and they give up.

This couldn’t be more ludicrous considering the online channel. The Heath’s give the example, “companies that say, ‘Make the customer happy,’ but pay service reps based on criteria like speed or quotas. At that nexus, paralysis leads to frustration.” The problem in this and other examples is not choice – it’s a confusion of priorities and fuzzy goals.

They offer Mattel as another example:

“Mattel prides itself on the quality of its products, but the massive recall of Chinese-made toys illustrates the risks faced by companies caught between maintaining safety and cutting costs.”

This is not a rational problem of choice – this is a lack of common sense! Safety for children’s toys is the price of doing business, not a choice. The Heaths and Schwartz seem to view choice as a “one OR another” decision (which may or may not be correct depending on the situation). However, the examples given in the Fast Company article are problems of priority which is “one THEN another THEN another” with trumps thrown in. Mattel wants to make toys. Their priorities are costs, then quality of toys, then manufacture location, etc. with the trump of safety to stop everything if a certain line is crossed.

In his fantastic and oft-written about book The Long Tail, Chris Anderson debunks the myth of choice paralysis, saying that “choice is simply an artifact of the limitations of the physical world where the information necessary to make an informed choice is lost.” Like I have laid out in regards to priorities, Anderson remarks, “the solution is not to limit choice, but to order it so it isn’t oppressive.”

To boil this all down, I believe that search is to commerce as Occam’s razor is to priorities. The former is a tool used to assist with the wise decision-making in the latter. (I just thought this up last night, so feel free to correct me in the comments section.)

I think these two systems are largely defined by the medium and one’s view of humankind. Granted, the Heaths and Schwartz are discussing real life while Anderson and I are focusing on the internet (though clearly similarities in decision making exist across the board).

But the Heaths and Schwartz also tend to talk about people as though they are irrational morons. Now, I’ve worked in politics and personally have a dim view of people on a whole, but when we’re talking about individuals I somehow revert back to giving them the benefit of the doubt. Especially on important decisions, I think most people tend to be fairly rational. Do we really believe some Chinese toy manufacturer thought, “duh, well I need to make a choice between making these toys and poisoning the little kids that play with them”? I think it was a little more complex than that.

Choice, in the Heaths/Schwartz model, is a one-time decision. 1) I don’t think life operates this way and 2) the examples the Heaths give are rarely one-time mistakes. The examples are almost always longer decision making mistakes which are more about priorities than choices. Getting both correct would be wonderful in a perfect world; for now, I’ll stick to winning the battle of priorities rather than focus on the war of choice.


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