Barry Schwartz: The paradox of Choice
Razor's edge of Choice
When I got back from my Peace Corps service in Guinea, West Africa, the second day I was home, my mom took me to a store to get a razor.
The store itself was small – a Rite-Aid or Payless, I think, but akin to a Walgreen’s – and the selection of razors that they offered was minimal, maybe eight or ten, but I don’t think I considered more than six of them.
This small number of razors was still a mindboggling number of choices compared to what I had in Guinea. I could either buy the razor that was available – a blue disposable – or not shave.
I stood in front of the selection of razors and made every possible comparison. I decided immediately against the disposable razors because it seemed like they probably wasted the most resources, even though they were the least expensive. The only way that I could help Guinea while I am in America is to make sure that my choices did not waste resources that they could use. They have enough problems without me stealing resources from them if I can help it.
That left the six razors and their cartridges hanging above the disposable models. I compared current prices. I then looked at prices of cartridges and compared future costs. Then I combined the two to see what would be cheaper in the long run. I compared packaging. I compared features. I compared where the razors were made. I still couldn’t come up with the absolute best razor for me.
In Guinea, the disposable worked fine. My face was clean shaven when I chose to shave, and it was cost effective for me. There was nothing I could do about the waste created when I finally had to get rid of the razor because there was no alternative available.
I spent 20 minutes in front of that display, and if I hadn’t needed to shave that day, I may have walked away from the whole process. There was no way for me to make a competent choice that would enable me to uphold all of the values that I needed in a razor – environmental, cost and performance. Instead, I would be giving up something to have one of the other two with the idea of environment really just something I made up as clearly none of the razors or their packaging were designed to save the planet or at least damage it less.
In the end, I had narrowed it down to four choices. Mom came by for the last time and told me firmly to “just pick one.” After all, they were only razors. So I grabbed one at random without any further dissection of its true value to me and the planet.
When I feel apathetic, I sometimes go to my local grocery store to see if there is anything I need to buy. I don’t like shopping, but for some reason, if I am able to purchase something, I feel better about life in general. Maybe it is the idea that by buying something, regardless of what it is, I have accomplished something that day even when the rest of it has been terrible.
Unfortunately, when I find nothing to buy, I leave the store feeling worse than ever. There are literally thousands of items in my local grocery store. They range from food and drink to books and office supplies. There are toys, medicines, small appliances, gift cards, DVDs – the list is amazingly enormous, especially when I think about the actual size of the store.
The question that runs through my mind when I leave empty handed is “What is wrong with me?” With all of that choice, there must have been something in there that could have lifted my mood. Am I so picky and indecisive so as to be unable to supply for my own needs from the vast amount of things that I can find in that store? It just doesn’t seem right.