We are lousy at making up our minds. Advertisers may goad us with slogans like “The choice is clear” and “There is only one good choice,” and the economists who champion rational-choice theory may still evoke a generic, utility-maximizing consumer who sizes up every situation in terms of his or her personal advantage. But after several decades of research—most famously that of Nobel Prize–winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky—it has become widely accepted, save among some skeptical social scientists, that the ability of any one of us to choose what’s in our best interest is severely limited.
It seems that we routinely overestimate what we know. We fail to predict what we will want in the future. We are inconsistent about our preferences. We value the objects we possess over the ones we lack in ways that don’t make any objective sense. And having better or more extensive information does not necessarily improve matters. That’s because when making choices, we also tend to ignore facts that do not jibe with the outcome we desire; we focus on information that is irrelevant, or see patterns where they do not exist, or get distracted by our fleeting emotions. Then, if the possibilities are presented differently, our choices will shift accordingly, suggesting that on top of it all, we are easily manipulated by those in the business of manufacturing situations bloated with options. By and large, when it comes time to choose, the impulsive, unreflective parts of the brain dominate the analytic parts. Or to put it differently, adults are a lot more like children than we might care to admit.
It’s a verdict around which a lucrative genre of business and self-help books has developed. On the heels of bestsellers like Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow; How We Decide, by the discredited former New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer; and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, all of which successfully popularized scholarly findings on our mental fallibility, have come a slew of instruction manuals promising businesspeople, consumers and even the lovelorn the key to beating the decision-making odds. Airport bookstores are well stocked with offerings like Make Up Your Mind: A Decision Making Guide to Thinking Clearly and Choosing Wisely (2012); Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life or Work (2013); Eyes Wide Open: How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World (2013); and The Happiness Choice: The Five Decisions That Will Take You From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be (2013)—not to mention specialized guides focused on careers, marriage, health and nutrition, consumer goods, and personal finance, all of them crammed with lessons about choice. Last year, even the Harvard Business Review weighed in with “10 Must Reads on Making Smart Decisions.” The message? If we understand our foibles and learn to choose more self-consciously, each of us will do a lot better making up our minds in the future.
But what if such how-to manuals, with their emphasis on enlarging the scope of personal responsibility to include choosing to monitor one’s own decision-making psychology, are better seen as symptoms of what ails us? What if the real problem is the imperative of making all those choices in all those different realms, from sex to software, in the first place? This is the view of a small number of philosophers, legal theorists and culturally aware psychologists, including Barry Schwartz and, more recently, Sheena Iyengar, Sigal Ben-Porath, Kent Greenfield and Renata Salecl. They insist that we have become overwhelmed and even “tyrannized” by our culture’s overinvestment in choice.