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July 16, 2006

Too Many Choices

I'm currently reading The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz. This book is actually very similar to Stumbling on Happiness, and even presents much of the same data. The premise is that, over the past several years, Americans have experienced the proliferation of options in everything from breakfast cereal to blue jeans to health care to retirement plans to careers, and that our increased need to make choices and the increased number of possibilites actually makes us less happy overall and less satisfied with the choices we do make. Schwartz recognizes that humans need to be able to make choices, to exercise a degree of control over our lives, but that, the more options we have, the less good each potential choice seems, which can ultimately lead to regret and decision paralysis, because we become obsessed with all the possibilities we are giving up.

This principle explains why the process of choosing a Ph.D. program left me so exhausted that I didn't even want to go to grad school. Overall, the University of Michigan was the best option for me because it combined good faculty members with a decent funding package, friendly cohorts, and a great location (especially attractive because I was already living in Ann Arbor. But I had six other options. Some departments were more highly ranked, one department offered the perfect advisor, one department threw a lot of money at me, and some of them were in more attractive locations. As Schwartz predicts, I became obsessed not only with what I was giving up by not accepting each of these offers, but my mind also began spinning with the counterfactuals: I wished that I could combine the best advisor with the best funding package and take them to the university in the most interesting city. Had I read this book before having to make the grad school decision, I would have taken my uncle Richard's advice. He recommended that, as soon as I get two offers, I should reject one of them. Then I would never have been choosing between more than two offers at a time, which Schwarz suggests is good advice because in reality there are never more than two options: the best or the second best. As soon as I did narrow it down to two, Michigan clearly emerged as the best option, though several people (including a very rude department chair at my second-choice school tried to convince me that I was making a mistake. Choosing a history Ph.D. program was the hardest and most nerve-wracking thing I have ever done, and it was a miserable process. I should have felt grateful to have had so many options, but Schwartz's book suggests that I would have felt better about the whole thing if I had either applied to fewer departments, or been accepted by fewer programs.

One passage was particularly poignant. As a professor at Swarthmore College, Schwartz is witness to the plight of the uber-capable. He writes that:

many of the students I teach have multiple interests and capabilities. These students face the task of deciding on the one thing that they want to do more than anything else. Unconstrained by limitations of talent, the world is open to them. Do they exult in this opportunity? Not most of the ones I talk to. Instead they agonize: Between making money and doing something of lasting social value. Between challenging their intellects and exercising their creative impulses. Between work that demands single-mindedness and work that will enable them to live balanced lives. Between work they can do in a beautifully pastoral location and work that brings them to a bustling city. Between any work at all and further study. With a decision as important as this, they struggle to find the reasons that make one choice stand out above the others.

This passage spoke to me because it exactly described my experience in college. I spent the first two years agonizing over what major to choose (physics or math? women's studies or computer science? history or anthropology?), and the next two years agonizing over what to do afterwards (grad school? in what? a well-paying job or a job I can feel good about? follow the boyfriend to Ann Arbor or apply for a fellowship abroad?). People assured me that I was smart enough and capable enough to do anything I wanted, but that was no reassurance. In fact, that was the problem.

Posted by eklanche at July 16, 2006 09:14 AM

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