The paradox of choice – Part 1

Recently, I started listening to a new audiobook. It’s called “The Paradox of Choice,” by Barry Schwartz. If you’re curious – the book is available from both Amazon and Audible.

Having choices is usually good. However, one basic idea that Schwartz explores in the book is that when it comes to having choices, it is definitively true that there can be “too much of a good thing.” Having too many choices can be overwhelming and can have negative side effects.

Let me give you two personal examples of this idea.

I moved in June. So, we’ve been doing some shopping recently. Several weeks ago, we went to Nebraska Furniture Mart to look for a loveseat. Have you ever been to a Nebraska Furniture Mart? I had never been to one before our recent visit. The Dallas store is two stories and 560,000 square feet. It’s about the size of nine football fields. That’s huge!

It took some time at first just to find the section with the couches and loveseats. We found one that looked appealing, but some other people were sitting on it. So, we started wandering around looking at others. Then, we tried to find the one that had initially looked interesting. At first we couldn’t find it! We did eventually locate it, but it took some searching.

living room with a couchWe spent about 45 minutes looking at loveseats. The whole process was confusing and unproductive. There were way too many possibilities, and it was much too difficult to keep track of the ones we liked. We left without buying anything and, I think more importantly, without even having a favorite that we really liked, despite sitting on dozens of pieces of furniture.

Here’s another example of too many choices. As part of our move, I also needed to buy some shelving paper. Did you know that if you search for shelving paper on Amazon, you get thousands of results?

Because there were so many options, I thought I would be able to find the perfect shelving paper that met all of my criteria (nice pattern, correct width, decent price, Amazon prime eligible, at least four stars, etc.).

I gave up after an hour. I just couldn’t figure out what to buy, even with the hundreds of options available. It was much easier to make a choice the next day at Target, with only half a dozen options available. The shelving paper that we bought wasn’t perfect, but it ended up looking really nice.

Schwartz discusses many ideas in the book that seem quite paradoxical in regard to how we normally think about making choices. Choice and control are hot topics right now in animal training, and I think there are some interesting ideas in the book that relate to animal training.

I do certainly think that we should be giving our animals more control over their lives and more opportunities to choose what they want. Many animals in captivity have very little control over their lives. Our animals rarely have the problem of having hundreds of choices!

Still, Schwartz’s book and some of my recent life experiences have been a good reminder to me that there may be some situations in which it is not fun to have choices. That is, getting to make a choice is not always a reinforcing experience.

Of course, this is true for anything that we generally think of as reinforcing. Even if your dog’s absolute favorite toy is a tennis ball, there will be times and places when your dog just doesn’t want to play ball.

The same is true for getting to make choices. While humans and animals usually benefit from getting to make choices, under certain conditions getting to make a choice may not be enjoyable and may not be a reinforcing experience.

I’ll be sharing some more of my thoughts about choice and about this book in several upcoming posts.

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