The Paradox of Choice, Oreo Cookies, and Malcolm Gladwell

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In 2004, American psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote a book titled “Paradox of Choice, Why More is Less“. In the book, Schwartz argued that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers. He believes that choice has made us more dissatisfied and paralyzed, not happier or freer.

Schwartz gave  an intriguing TED talk on this topic back in 2005.

What I find interesting is that 10 years later, the number of choices we have for many products and services has not decreased, as it seems Schwartz would have preferred, but has in fact exploded.

Here are some examples:

And these are just examples of the variety within one product line for each company. When you think about the numbers of cookie, toothpaste, or shampoo types across all brands, it is simply mind boggling, and could lead to paralysis by analysis.

The Onion even did a satire piece on this recently, “Pope Francis Reverses Position On Capitalism After Seeing Wide Variety Of American Oreos“.

So if Schwartz’s work shows that too much choice creates stress for the consumer, why do we continue to have more and more choices?

Malcolm Gladwell addresses this in a classic Ted talk, also from 2004.

Gladwell notes that “the great revolution in science of the last 10, 15 years is the movement from the search for universals to the understanding of variability. Now in medical science, we don’t want to know, necessarily, just how cancer works, we want to know how my cancer is different from your cancer. Genetics has opened the door to the study of human variability. (Psychophysicist) Howard Moskowitz stated, ‘This same revolution needs to happen in the world of tomato sauce’,” and he made that happen. The result is that we went from one variety of tomato sauce to the world of Ragu, where there are now 36 different sauces.

And that is what we see happening everywhere – with cookies, toothpaste, shampoo, and soda, etc.

So it appears that despite Schwartz’s belief that too much variety creates stress and unhappiness, it may actually be just the opposite.

Gladwell concludes that “in embracing the diversity of human beings, we will find a surer way to true happiness.”

So excuse me while I finish this plate of S’mores Oreos; I’ll be sure to brush my teeth with Crest’s Baking Soda & Peroxide Whitening Toothpaste with Tartar Protection when I’m finished.

Published by

Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

4 thoughts on “The Paradox of Choice, Oreo Cookies, and Malcolm Gladwell”

  1. I can’t wait to watch the TED Talks when I have an extra few minutes. This is a fascinating topic.

    By the way, are you familiar with The Story Grid? After 25 years in book publishing Shawn Coyne deconstructs books (plot, character, conflict) with a “story grid,” much like the process of diagramming a sentence (only more in depth).

    It’s fascinating. He first hooked me with The Silence of the Lambs, and now he’s gone nonfiction with Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” At the moment, he’s veered off down a rabbit trail, taking us behind the scenes into the world of agents, editors and publishers – how to book deal gets made (the puny writer fits in there somewhere, too). He’s using the drama of The Tipping Point as his example for that, too.

    At some point, I plan to read The Tipping Point. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the ride that Coyne is taking me on.
    Check it out: http://www.storygrid.com




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    1. Hi Suzy, I finally got a chance to take a look at The Story Grid, particularly for The Tipping Point. I must admit I found it quite overwhelming and hard to follow, as well as to understand what the whole concept of the story grid is. I was impressed with how much detail Coyne goes into, but I guess I’m not the analytical type when it comes to reading a book. If I were writing a book, I could see how the site might be quite helpful. Thanks for making me aware of the site.




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      1. It definitely is a thing for people interested in writing books. I’d like to write one someday, but even if I don’t, I find his analyses and stories fascinating. A lot of the people who comment on his Storygrid posts are writers or aspiring writers. It’s an interesting community.




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