TIP 013 | The Paradox of Choice

TIP 013 | The Paradox of Choice

Welcome to Influencers!

Today, we have with us Barry. For those of you who were listening last week, there were several hints to suggest who Barry is. He was born and raised in the Bronx. He is famous for having bought a pair of jeans that were the best fitting jeans ever. And an idea that he had articulated as foreign to the way everybody thought had then become the received wisdom.

Then, the second interview is anonymous. If you can figure out who it is before we reveal it in the following podcast, you could win a coveted invitation to the Influencer Salon.

Listen To The Podcast Here:

The Paradox of Choice with Barry Schwartz

I’m incredibly excited to be hosting the legendary Barry Schwartz today. Barry’s somebody that I’ve read his writing, listened to his talks, and has been so inspired by his works that there’s an entire chapter of my book that starts off with his story of going to buy jeans. Barry, thank you so much for coming on the show.

I’m honored.

Barry, can you tell us a little bit about where do you work, what’s your title, where have you worked, what have you done? Brag for us. Everybody wants to hear how cool you are.

I don’t think I’m so cool. My life is remarkably ordinary. I got my college degree at New York University when it had a little campus in the Bronx. Soon after I graduated it was sold. I did my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1971, I took a job at Swarthmore College outside of Philadelphia, which is the only job I have ever had. I stayed there for 45 years. People who have read my book will understand that this is an example of appreciating when you’ve got something that’s good enough, you should be grateful and keep it. I spent 45 years teaching at Swarthmore, which is a wonderful place to work with great students. I retired last June, a year ago, and moved to the West Coast to be closer to kids and grandkids. I now have a visiting professorship at the Haas School of Business at Berkeley. I’ve written a whole bunch of books.

My hunch is everybody knows the name of your most popular book. What’s it called?

TIP 013 | The Paradox of Choice

The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

The Paradox of Choice is my most popular book. Before that, I wrote a couple of books called The Battle for Human Nature and The Costs of Living. After that, I wrote a book called Practical Wisdom. Most recently, about a year and a half ago, a book called Why We Work, which is an attempt to explain what really motivates people to get up and go to work every day.

Most of the time, I really like to dive into the things that have influenced you and your career, but the fact that you do this research is so critical to share as it’s had a really profound impact on my life. In your book, The Paradox of Choice, you challenged conventional thinking. In America especially, we believe more is more. The more options we have, the happier we’ll be. We are free to make choices. The more choices and options, the more American we are, the better life is. You challenged that. Why was that?

A study got published in 2000. I didn’t do the study. In a fancy food store, you put out 30 different flavors of imported jam, expensive jam. This was the standard practice at the food store. Whenever they got a new product, they put it out so people could sample it. The experimenters conformed to their standard practice and put out these 30 flavors. Anyone who came by and tasted the jam would get a coupon that would save them $1 on any jam they bought. A few days later, they setup a similar table except there were only six different flavors of jam. Once again, if you stop by and taste it, you’d get a coupon that saves you $1. What they found is that more people were attracted to the table when there were 30 jams. When there were six, about one-tenth as many people actually bought a jam. This was a demonstration that too many options, instead of liberating people, could paralyze them.

This work was done by a psychologist named Sheena Iyengar. She subsequently showed it’s also true in lots and lots of other situations including most consequentially when you give employees hundreds of mutual funds to choose from for their 401(k), they’re less likely to sign up than if you only give them a half a dozen. Even though, by not signing up, they’re passing up matching money from their employer. This was the first demonstration that too many options produce paralysis, not liberation. It also turned out that too many options induces people to make bad decisions. The part that interested me the most, it also turns out that when you give people lots of options, they’re less satisfied with whatever it is they choose even when they’ve chosen well.

I just want to make this as relevant as possible to my listeners. I’m not sure if this was your example or somebody else has said this to me, but what I often hear is if I’m at a small town and there are only two women of marrying age, and just to oversimplify things, one’s a seven and one’s a five, and I end up with a seven, I’m going to be super happy. But if I’m in a major city, I’m dating all of these lovely ladies and they’re all nines, but for different reasons. One comes from a really great family that I love, another one is super smart and has an incredible job, and another one is super fit and gets me to exercise and so on. I select one of them. I’m likely to end up less happy because even though I ended up with a nine rather than being in a small town and ending up with a seven, I’ll end up less happy because there’s now more points of comparison and so many more options that I’m left with all these possible futures that I didn’t get to enjoy.

That’s exactly right. Interestingly, the TV comedian and star, Aziz Ansari, wrote a book a few years ago called Modern Romance. He interviewed me extensively as he was writing the book because as an extremely attractive young resident of New York, his intuition was that this made life harder and not easier when it came to establishing intimate relationships. The advent of internet dating opportunities like Tinder also made it harder, not easier to form intimate relationships. Choosing our potential partner from two, that may be too small a set because you might not be lucky enough for one of them to be a seven. Choosing them from two million is clearly too big a set. It’s a very funny book and your listeners really ought to read it because it’s also insightful.

TIP 013 | The Paradox of Choice

The Paradox of Choice: When you have lots of options, what you almost certainly do is evaluate options based on features that are easy to judge.

Here was his insight. When you have lots of options, what you almost certainly do is you evaluate options on the basis of features that are easy to judge. What’s easy to judge about a romantic partner is physical attractiveness. How funny, how kind, how thoughtful, how good a listener, those are hard things to judge; but how attractive, that’s easy. You end up making decisions on the basis of criteria that are not in the long run that important because you can’t make these judgments on the basis of the criteria that are important when you’re looking at hundreds or thousands of possible partners. What he thinks is that when the set of possibilities is smaller, you invest in developing a relationship and in that way really getting to know someone in a way that you don’t when you’ve got Tinder in the palm of your hand. You’re exactly right, you end up in some sense a better partner and you feel worse about it. You’re always looking over your partner’s shoulder in the event that somebody better might be coming along.

Don’t worry, Barry, I’m not going to ask you about your wife.

My wife and I, we’ve been together since 8th grade. In a few months, we’ll be celebrating our 50th anniversary.

If our listeners want to get as much satisfaction as possible from their decisions or maximize their enjoyment, it sounds like what they should do is limit the number of options so that they don’t experience a cognitive overload. They don’t have to think about it so much. It reduces the number of points of comparison. When you have a million options, then you’re expecting to get the perfect solution for what you want. Since nothing is ever perfect, then they’re not going to get to enjoy that. Is that correct?

That’s absolutely correct. A more general manner, even when there aren’t a million options out there, seeking perfection is almost certainly a recipe for misery and disappointment. What you want is a good enough result. Your standards can be high but there’s a big difference between good enough and perfect. If you’re looking for good enough, you don’t have to look at every possible option. You just keep looking until you find one that meets your standards. If you’re looking for perfection, then you have to look at all of them. In my book, I distinguish between satisfying, looking for good enough, and maximizing, looking for the best. The single most constructive thing people can do when it comes to making decisions is to adapt their criterion of good enough and forget about the criterion of best or perfect. It’s not easy to do that for people who are inclined, who have really drank the Kool-Aid and only the best will do. It’s not easy to give that up but if you work on giving it up, you will discover it’s easier to make decisions and you get much more satisfaction than if you insist on finding the best.

The important takeaway here for our female listeners is that it’s okay to end up with somebody who’s good enough, like me, and you don’t need the very best. I want to switch gears a little to your latest book that you released. It’s a TED book, right?

Yes, which means you can read it on one trip to the bathroom. It’s a 120-page.

Your new book has some pretty significant implications to the modern workforce, doesn’t it?

TIP 013 | The Paradox of Choice

Why We Work

That was my aim. What I take on in the new book Why We Work is that there’s an assumption that has dominated the development of industrial capitalism starting with Adam Smith that the only reason people work is to get paid, that we’re basically lazy and we wouldn’t do anything unless somebody made it worth our while. Once somebody’s paying you, it really doesn’t matter what you do because you’ll work for the pay check. The consequence of that assumption is the design of workplaces where only an insane person would show up except for a paycheck. The way call centers are structured, fulfillment centers are structured nowadays, the way the assembly line was structured in the beginning of the industrial revolution. These are creating jobs that have absolutely no redeeming feature to them.

Like rats pressing levers in the Skinner box, you’re pressing pants in a factory and there’s no reason to do it except for the paycheck. This is a profoundly mistaken view. People want to do work that’s engaging, that’s meaningful, that’s challenging, that enables them to learn new things, that enables them to use their discretion and gives them some autonomy. All of those things matter as much as the paycheck does. When you eliminate all those things from what’s possible in the workplace, then it becomes true that people are just working for a paycheck because you’ve deprived them of the other things that people care about. Gallup surveys workplace satisfaction every year. The most recent evidence is that somewhere around 90% of people who work around the world are either unengaged or actively disengaged from the work that they do. Let me say this again to emphasize. 90% of people spend half their waking lives doing something they don’t want to do in a place they don’t want to be. The point in my book is that none of that is necessary.

In our last conversation, you presented five questions that every company executive should ask themselves about the nature of their organization and the way that they engage with their employees. I find it fascinating, especially some of the stories that you shared. I’d love to go through these questions and hopefully some of the listeners are in an executive position or they could really examine the nature of the work that they do in hopes that they could find a better option on how to engage in the workplace. What’s the first question we should be aware of?

The most important question and the first question is, does the work have meaning? Which can be operationalized as, does the work that people are doing in some way add value to the world, make the world better and improve people’s lives? If the answer to that is no, then there’s basically nothing you can do to make the work people do in any way fulfilling. In my view, if the answer to that is no, then your organization shouldn’t exist. That’s the primary question.

Give an example of a company that shifted the way that it viewed its role in society, so we can see a before and after.

There’s a company that I write about in the book called Interface Carpet that makes carpet tile that you see mostly in public spaces like airports. It was a wildly successful company. The owner had an epiphany. He was in his 60s or early 70s. He had an epiphany that he was going to leave his grandchildren a fortune and an uninhabitable planet because the environmental footprint in the production process this company used was gigantic. He decided that from that day forward their mission was going to reduce their environmental footprint to zero. He assumed that this was going to cost the company money and he didn’t care. Since it was a privately held company, he could lose as much money as he wanted to. They embarked on this project with a twenty-year horizon. They got about halfway there and then he died. They’re continuing to move ever closer to their goal of zero environmental footprint.

The surprise is that instead of losing money, profits went up. Every time they made a change, they enhanced the profitability of the company. The reason why, he said, is that the workforce was unbelievably motivated in a way that it hadn’t been before. They weren’t just making carpet tile anymore, they were saving the planet. They were totally engaged, totally energized and full of ideas about how to make this or that aspect of production more environmentally friendly. The result was much more productivity than they’d ever witnessed before. They weren’t getting paid anymore. They may have even been getting paid less. But it didn’t matter because they now had a mission. That’s an example of changing the focus of the company and extensively in a way that will cost the company money and discovering that it actually makes the company money.

I assume that there’s a context that every company can operate at or out of that for some it might be environmental, for some it might be social, for some it might be emotional. Regardless of what they actually make, they could do it in a context that provides value at a greater level.

TIP 013 | The Paradox of Choice

The Paradox of Choice: Every transaction is an opportunity for you to improve the life of the person you’re having the transaction with.

Absolutely. Just to give you a more mundane example, any retail store in any mall in the country, is the objective to make a sale or is the objective to solve a problem? People come into your store with a problem. Are you going to help them solve it? If that’s your attitude, your interaction with the customer’s going to be completely different than if your attitude is, “I’m here to make a sale.” You don’t have to be doing brain surgery to add value to the world. Every transaction is an opportunity for you to improve the life of the person you’re having the transaction with. My guess is that nobody in retail, in businesses, emphasizes this in training sales people, virtually nobody.

Second question, what is it?

Do I respect my employees? I need to unpack this a little bit. What it means to respect your employees is that you trust them. What it means to trust your employees is that you give them a fair amount of discretion and autonomy in how they get their work done. They know the goal but you largely leave it to them to figure out the best way to achieve the goal. This is enormously valuable to the company because people are intelligent. If you give them permission to think, they will and often to the benefit of the company’s operation. It’s also of enormous psychological benefit because people want to be in charge of their lives. Having to follow rigidly specified rules is the opposite of that. That’s the second question: Do I respect my employees? Is that manifested in the way their jobs are structured?

Third question?

I don’t actually know if I divide them into five but I’ll just tick them off. Is the work engaging? Are people challenged by what they have to do? Do they bring their full selves to the work on a regular basis? As they’re doing the work, they, to a large degree lose a sense of time passing because their attention is so focused or fully engrossed on the work. I can give an example of this and it’s not true of all people who have this job, but I write about hospital janitors who are at the very bottom of the hierarchy in any hospital. Most of them are just punching their clock and doing their list of tasks. But some of them think their job is to do whatever is needed to serve the mission of the hospital, which is to cure disease and ease suffering.

What that means is that they aren’t just emptying trash or washing floors, they’re also looking around to see if there’s an anxious patient who can be comforted or a terrified family in the waiting room who can somehow have their anxiety eased or if there’s a nurse who’s trying to turn a big patient in bed so he doesn’t get bed sores and can use your help moving the patient. What that means is that even though you have this list of chores as a janitor, your eyes are always open for opportunities for you to intervene in a helpful way to serve the mission of the hospital. You are always engaged, you’re always thinking, you’re always looking around and asking, “How can I help?” That’s transformative. It makes what seems like an unskilled and boring job into a highly skilled and varied job. As I say, not every janitor has this but many do.

Brilliant. Keep going.

Does the work provide opportunities for people who learn new things, to develop? I don’t think this needs any real explanation. Too familiar, too routinized, it becomes boring. This is a challenge. Think about somebody who’s delivering babies. There’s a sense in which almost every delivery is the same. How do you keep yourself really engaged and focused and operating at your best when from your point of view, it’s the 28,000th child birth you’ve done? How do you stay as excited at number 28,000 as you were at number three? It’s like being a theatre performer, a Broadway star and you’ve done this show 1,250 times. How do you manage to show the same enthusiasm in front of your audience in the 1,2-0th time you’ve done it as you did it the first night? It’s a real tribute. It’s no simple task. You know what actors will say is, “It’s the 1,250th time I’m performing it but it’s the first time they’re seeing it.” It’s one thing to say that and it’s another thing somehow to incorporate that into the way you do the performance. It is challenging.

The final thing is the social thing. Do you operate in an environment of mutual respect and admiration with the people you work with, you work alongside, both the people who supervise you and the people who you supervise and your peers? Work is a social experience for most of us. Is it a rewarding social experience? Those are the key ingredients. People who set up companies can’t completely, as it were, create the ideal work environment in all situations but they can certainly make work a lot more engaging, meaningful and satisfying than the experience of most people working today throughout the world at no financial cost.

Barry, I have to say, you are a brilliant, brilliant mind. I only hope anybody who’s in any position of influence at a major company gets a copy of your book because it has a real profound ability to impact and shape our society, even more so than The Paradox of Choice actually.

As my grandmother used to say, “From your mouth to God’s ears.” That would be a fantastic development were it to come to pass.

I hope it becomes so successful that people forget that it was you that came up with it.

I’ll be more than happy to give up the credit.

Barry, this has been a completely non-standard interview for us. I really want to thank you for playing along and participating. I would love for you to just quickly share where people can find out more about your work and find you.

People can Google me and they’ll get all kinds of hits that will list my books. I’m not hard to find. I don’t do Facebook. I find Twitter repugnant. But I’m pretty findable. I have three TED Talks and if they’re going to TED, they can watch the talks and in 40 minutes learn everything I’ve ever had to say that’s worth hearing.

Listeners, check out Barry Schwartz. Of course, stay tuned for the anonymous interview.


About Barry Schwartz

TIP 013 | The Paradox of ChoiceBarry Schwartz (born August 15, 1946) is an American psychologist. Schwartz is the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College.

He frequently publishes editorials in The New York Times applying his research in psychology to current events.


Anonymous Guest Interview


Listeners, it’s my favorite part again, the anonymous interview. Today, we have a very, very good friend of mine. Mark, thanks so much for coming on.

My pleasure. Anything for you, Jon.

Mark, besides being a gentleman that I actually really admire, what you create in the world is really novel and fun and of incredible caliber and quality. Before we dive into any of that, tell us a little bit about yourself. Where’d you grow up? What’s your backstory?

I grew up in Houston, Texas; moved there when I was three. My dad actually was a doctor in Vietnam. When he came back, he decided to do his residency at Baylor so the whole family moved there. At the time we lived pretty far outside of the outskirts of the city. I grew up chasing snakes and walking at bayou, catching crawdads and had a pet turtle, very outdoorsy life growing up.

I really wouldn’t have guessed that at all. Was there a certain moment that inspired you to go down the path that you went?

TIP 013 | The Paradox of Choice

Every time I went to visit him in Baltimore, he would take me to the symphony

There are two things really. First is my grandfather. My grandfather was a concert violinist during the Depression era and was just a beautiful, beautiful musician. Every time I went to visit him in Baltimore, he would take me to the symphony and he still played into his late 80s. I really got this love of music and passion and maybe a tiny ounce of his talent passed down. I always loved music. I wrote a lot of lyrics for songs. I learned a bunch of different instruments; piano, trumpet, and saxophone. I found my real passion for music on the drums. I played in a band that was first called Too Short for Primetime. We had a local TV show on the NBC affiliate. I started doing that by age eleven. Then that developed into a new band called Disturbing the Peace which was named by the police because we were too loud. We won the Houston Rock Off. We played parties and all kinds of stuff. It was probably one of the best experiences in my life. Looking back, it was a huge, huge part of what inspired me to pursue the creative arts. The band went on without me. In college, they got on Star Search and two of the guys still play incredibly. One has a band that tours Europe and he’s also a world famous DJ. The other still plays in a band that tours Texas. We were very dedicated from a really young age.

The second part of that which really inspired me was when I got to high school, our high school, it was Bellaire High School, a public high school in Houston, had a TV station called K-bell, K-Bellaire. They used to play the programming that we made during the lunch in the cafeteria. We had to make essentially half hour programming every day. The school loved us because we were one of the only things going that could actually keep the cafeteria quiet. People shockingly would watch what we made. We had this really incredibly talented group of people. We had some, at the time, great equipment that I’d never really been exposed to before. Being forced to make five days of programming; one day was a sitcom, one day was a drama, one day was a new show, one day was a game show. We had this group of ten kids who all loved making television.

It was that training in high school and also the fun that I had working with those guys where the sky just was the limit that really inspired me to later pursue a career. At the time, living in Houston, I had no idea that people could make money and have a career doing this. That was just so foreign a concept. When I went to college, I studied Economics and Philosophy and thought to have a more serious job. I was pretty good at Economics. When I went to college I majored in those two subjects, transferred to Harvard, then transferred back to Emory to graduate, and lived in Brussels, Belgium for a couple of years.

Mark I have to say, you sound like you could literally do everything, like the guy in Limitless. Do you have that weird drug that he took? This is incredible. Mark, first of all, I didn’t know any of this stuff about your background. I’ve never even heard of a school having a television station, let alone one that exposed kids to the daily grind of television production. That’s amazing. That’s absolutely incredible. Now a lot less surprising to know how you ended up in this career. What made the ultimate shift into what you’re doing now?

It’s funny, what I was able to do is ultimately I combined these two passions. At that time when I lived in Brussels, I really thought that international trade was a way to make the world a better place. That was how you got countries and companies all to cooperate, to open their borders, to get to know each other better, and raise the economic well-being of everyone. I worked with the European community. While I was in Brussels, I really decided then that I wanted to become a speech writer. That was my strength and I enjoyed that. That was how I could contribute. I applied to the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and ultimately got a master’s in public policy. Like I said, I didn’t really realize there were jobs in LA that people paid you to write. Speech writing seemed like a good way to go, considering my interest in politics and government and policy.

While I was there, I wrote a short story that was inspired by a political event that I’d been a part of. I gave it to my brother who was the only person reading my fiction at the time. He happened to be living in New York and dating a woman who was at a talent agency. She read it, really liked the short story, gave it to a talent agent in Los Angeles who gave it to a producer and next thing I know I got a call to fly out to LA. It was the middle of January and I was working on my thesis in Boston. It was zero degrees. A call to go out to meet a producer in the Pacific Palisades sounded pretty awesome. That’s what I did.

What was the producer’s name?

The producer was Mary Anne Page. She optioned the screenplay. We worked on it. Unfortunately, it never got made but I caught the bug. I was, “People will actually pay you to write fiction,” which just opened me up in a new way that I just found incredibly exciting. I had a couple of breaks. The big one was because I had this experience going to the Kennedy School, living abroad, working with NATO and writing some war game scenarios, I got an offer to write on The West Wing. That offer came, just as luck would have it, this was 2002, the same day that I got the offer to write on The West Wing, I got an offer to be a speech writer at the State Department. My security clearance was the first level of that was cleared. I got the offer. It was the run up to the Iraq war. I thought very hard about what I wanted to do with my life. I thought I could do more good writing fiction for a fictitious government. I never really looked back from there.

Was there a certain moment where you felt like you had reached a level of success?

TIP 013 | The Paradox of Choice

The longevity in any one job is not particularly secure. But that gives you this incredible opportunity to dive into lots of different worlds.

No, because the interesting thing about a writing career is you’re kind of a carney. You travel around from show to show. The best you can ever hope for is that a show goes seven years. Half of all shows are cancelled in their first season. Half of those that make it to their second season are cancelled. The longevity in any one job is not particularly secure. However, that gives you this incredible opportunity to dive into lots of different lives and worlds. Getting to work with a con artist or do a horror show and do something that’s a light dramedy and do something that’s a very significant show with more gravitas that gets to tackle world problems or pretend you’re in the White House, that’s the life that you get to lead and that’s been really fun.

Because you worked so long on a show about con artists, did you ever get to pull off a con?

Not, but I find myself now whenever I go somewhere going, “This would be so easy to setup a con here.” I could break in and steal something pretty quickly if I wanted. No, I’m a terrible liar. That’s why I have to write it. I’m a bad actor and an even worse liar. I can fantasize about it much better and achieve them on the page.

Last question. What hint or riddle would you give people to figure out who you are?

For the last year, I’ve been working on a CBS show and that’s no bull.

Listeners, you have way more than you need to figure out who Mark is. Remember to submit your guesses online and you could win an invitation to The Salon by Influencers.