Barry Schwartz: Choices Worth Having

Barry SchwartzJust back from an event in Glasgow’s Oran Mor organised by Scotland’s Centre for Confidence & Wellbeing. The speaker was Professor Barry Schwartz.

I have tweeted some of his quotes (@laurieod) and this post is my notes of what he said.

The ‘Paradox of Choice’  – too much choice in certain aspects of our lives (commodities/products etc) can make us miserable whilst  not enough choice in other areas (how we treat/are treated by other people) can also make us unhappy.

The official syllogism
More freedom = more well being
More choice means more freedom

  • Consumer goods – choice has exploded into more areas of our lives:
  • Healthcare – patient autonomy, direct marketing of drugs (prescription) to patients
  • Work – anytime, answer an email or take a business call anywhere
  • Liberal arts curriculum (HE in US)
  • Close relationships
  • Identity

But too much choice can lead to paralysis

  • What Too much choice does: Satisfaction (not as much bang for the choice buck)
  • Regret and anticipated regret (only way to get out is to defer decision)
  • Opportunity costs (missed opportunities)

Escalation of expectations

  • People do better but feel worse (Gap between expectations and reality)
  • Only a marginal increase of happiness post the threshold of subsistence

Disappointment – Self blame

  • Who’s fault is it – shift from the world, the product, the corporation to self

Maximising and ‘satisficing’

  • Best or good enough?
  • Maximisers – consider more jobs, want more options , earn more, did better but feel worse …

How can choice be both good and bad?

  • No choice life is infinitely bad, some choice makes life better, but increasing choice after a certain point makes people unhappy … relationship is non-monotonic
  • No magic amount of choice (contextual/situational/personal/cultural)

The choices worth having

  • We can’t do without character and virtue. Better rules or smarter incentives don’t work. Practical wisdom (Aristotle) is the key virtue.
  • We are waging a war on wisdom
  • Moral skill/moral will – Aristotelian ‘practical wisdom’
  • A wise person knows
    • when and how to make the exception to every rule.
    • When and how to improvise – Wisdom is moral jazz
    • To use moral skills in pursuit of right aims.
  • A wise person is made not born.
  • Importance of context/situation

Rules and the war on moral skill

  • Rules and procedures may be dumb but they are convenient for people who want to avoid thinking or taking responsibility for their action.
  • Rules protect against disaster but ensure mediocrity.
  • Rules are often imposed after people fail to meet an acceptable standard and designed to ensure a minimalist approach to quality, safety etc
  • Rules don’t do the job and make it less likely that people use their judgement. (Hence no opportunity for growth/learning) and hence guarantees no growth in wisdom.
  • Examples of completely scripted/lock-step curricula, eg no child left behind. Reflecting no confidence in the teacher and an insurance against bad teachers. But guarantees over time more bad teachers by driving out moral judgement.
  • Need rules but need to be able to improvise to reflect context/situation/etc

Incentives and the war on moral will

  • Financial incentives undermine moral commitment.
  • CEO financial  incentives lead to irresponsible behaviours based. Doing the right think cannot based on monetary reward.
  • ‘We must ask, not just is it profitable, but is it right’. Obama 18.12.08
  • Banking has become demoralised. All self-interest. Losing morale of practitioners.

Remoralising work

  • Ethics is taught in practice not in classrooms.
  • Encourage both moral skill and moral will.
  • Teachers should become moral heros.
  • Teachers are always on stage. We are always teaching in everything we do.
  • Work as job, career or calling
    • Job – work sucks
    • Career – positive trajectory
    • Calling – happy and work vital to identity
    • People doing exactly the same work have different levels of happiness
    • Happier to have a calling. Job and career look the same – both unhappy

What creating a calling requires?

  • A sense of organisational purpose
  • A sense of partnership
  • A large degree of discretion and autonomy

Never let a crisis go to waste

  • Imagining new possibilities. Reintroduce virtue & the importance of practical wisdom.
  • Desire to make the world a better place. Has become hard even in the areas of work where this should be easy (health, education etc)
  • Telos of education, nursing clear but more often conflicted as a result of losing the original purpose – hospitals become disease control factories rather than places where people become healthy.
  • The telos of banking has become to make as much money as possible. Banking has lost it way.

Great stuff, thought provoking, stimulating and inspiring. Worth watching Barry Schwartz’s TED Talk on the Paradox of Choice  or on The Loss of our Wisdom if you want more …


  1. Estela

    Original and profound perspective, brings light to the reflection about learner’s choices and child-centred schooling.
    How to develop an education where individual choices are taken including other’s needs? Not only the teacher looking the child but the child learning to choose looking the teacher, colleagues and the all community…

  2. Great summary Laurie!
    I’ll be forwarding your blog to lots of folks!!

  3. Dear Laurie
    Your notes on the Barry Schwartz event are great. Do you mind if we circulate them to a few people? We’ll credit you as the author.

  4. laurie

    Happy for you to circulate. They are just my rough notes taken at the event but great if they are useful to anyone else.