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Freedom of Choice

A few years ago I read Barry Schwartz's very good book The Paradox of Choice. I was reminded of the book's hypothesis over the weekend when I came across Mike Darling's piece in Spirit Magazine, reiterating that more choices sometimes make us less happy than fewer choices.

The quintessential example has become the supermarket, where every product has a seemingly endless array of options. What if, instead of 100 slightly different pasta sauces and a thousand different wines, there were just a few? Would that make us more content with whatever we pick?

(from rick on Flickr)

I think it's dangerous to universally claim that more choices make us worse-off. I think it's more fair to say that excessive choices make us unhappy. Or, as an economist might say, increasing choices offer diminishing, and eventually negative, returns. In the beginning, we like having more things to choose from, but at some point, that happiness levels-off and eventually begins to decline.

Of course, the debate about choice becomes more nuanced when you think about it. Is it good that my neighborhood has a lot of different bars and restaurants that I can choose from? Sure - I think so. Furthermore, would it be best if every one of those restaurants offered a menu with every type of dish on it?

It wouldn't, so long as that huge selection makes it difficult for restaurants to focus on making anything particularly well. Sticking with the restaurant example, I think this is one reason why Chipotle is able to enjoy enormous success, while many knock-off burrito restaurants struggle. I hate walking into a burrito place and seeing a menu with 20 or 30 pre-selected combinations. The simplicity of the Chipotle menu offers a feeling of comfort.

I've long believed that if I ever get to a point where I'm able to own my own bar or restaurant, it's going to be hyper-focused on something. Maybe I'll have a bar that serves the best wings in town; but it won't serve anything else, just wings.

Some people will get turned off by this concept. They'll say, "I don't like wings and won't come to your bar, but if you served burgers, I'd buy one." That's probably true, for people who don't like wings. But if my bar can succeed in being the #1 wing spot around, then I won't need those burger customers anyway. If I make wings and burgers that are both just OK, that's not going to have people knocking down the door either.


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