Those who live in North America and Western Europe have more options in terms of food, careers, consumer items and everything else, said Barry Schwartz, Swarthmore professor and author of "Why Less is More" at PC Forum taking place in Carlsbad, Calif. this week. And that's the problem.
The bewildering number of choices is paralyzing people with fear, unrealistic expectations, self-blame and regret. As a result, a trip to the electronics store becomes an opportunity to make a decision you could easily regret. The phenomenon is a big contributor of the significant rise in clinical depression, he said.
"Instead of liberating people, it paralyzes them," he said. "When human life was harder, people's expectations were pretty low. Now, it's not clear if anything will exceed expectations."
A tour of his own grocery store underscored the mind-numbing degree of choice today, he said. There, he found 175 salad dressings, not including oils and vinegars, and 285 types of cookies.
Studies back this up. In a grocery store experiment, a table loaded with 24 types of jams got many visitors, but sales were ten times higher when only six jams were offered. In a study of the 401K plans at 1,500 companies, participation in retirement plans dropped 2 percent every time ten more investment choices were added to the mix. In speed dating, participants had a greater chance of hooking up if they met six, rather than twelve, people in a session.
The solution, he said, could be intelligent filters and better-engineered defaults. With retirement plans, that means that people would be automatically signed up for a program. Today, at most companies, people have to actively choose to participate. Reducing choice for consumers could be thought of as "Libertarian Paternalism," a somewhat ominous-sounding concept coined by another academic.
Interestingly, the speech was pitched at a room full of execs and venture capitalists that spend their time concocting the next big thing.