The burden of ‘too much choice’

Among the themes to emerge from ‘happiness economics’ one seized on by those disapproving of open markets and the decision-making autonomy they may bring is that having ‘choice’ does not necessarily make people happy. In situations as diverse as choosing items from a restaurant menu to more complex decisions about which financial products to buy it appears that having ‘too many’ options may add to the burden of stress that people feel owing to the fear of making the ‘wrong choice’ or not the ‘best choice’. This finding is associated with Barry Schwartz and Sheena Iyengar. These writers do not themselves jump to suggest that governments reduce choice in order to make people happier (though in the case of Iyengar, this is not explicitly ruled out). They tend to prefer instead various ‘self control’ measures aimed at satisficing rather than maximizing decisions – strategies which are fully at one with a classical liberal focus on individual liberty. Others, however, in the ‘green’ and ‘anti-globalist’ camps (the New Economics Foundation in the UK springs to mind) do not hesitate in advancing their own pet plans to ‘increase happiness’ by restricting individual liberties in pursuit of an explicitly anti-consumerist and anti-market agenda.

Read the rest of the article on the Pileus website.

Mark Pennington is the author of Robust Political Economy: Classical Liberalism and the Future of Public Policy

IEA Fellow of Political Economy

Professor Mark Pennington is a fellow in Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs and is also a lecturer in Political Economy at King's College, London. Mark holds a PhD from the London School of Economics, has been published in a number of publications and is co-editor of The Review of Austrian Economics.

3 thoughts on “The burden of ‘too much choice’”

  1. Posted 04/05/2011 at 10:05 | Permalink

    Choice induces stress, that much is true. Fortunately, we can choose how much choice we want. Aldi has about 30 types of wine on offer (narrowing down to much fewer when sorting out the obvious rubbish brands), Odd Bins has several hundreds, Morrison is somewhere in between. So buying wine at Aldi is a good anti-stress strategy.

  2. Posted 04/05/2011 at 20:13 | Permalink

    Or you can go somewhere that is a bit more pricey with an expert who will choose for you. In the world of finance, of course, regulators have perversely decreed that intermediaries can only offer options to their clients if they offer all possible options (rather than saying “we offer these six policies from these five companies”). Once again it is an attempt to impose the neo-classical version of “free markets” on a market.

  3. Posted 05/12/2011 at 15:21 | Permalink

    I agree that too much choice can be a bad thing. The idea of choice goes back to a basic idea of economics about scarcity and cost. When there is scarcity and choice, there are costs. The cost of any choice is the option or options that a person gives up. This is what makes any choice we make hard, however the more options we have the more it seems to cost us when we make one decision. This is extremely hard when we make a decision that we go not like because we see all the other possibilities or things we could have done. In this sense these choices we had before become less helpful and more harmful and saddening.

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