Research-Induced Paralysis: The Paradox of Choice

I hope that these ongoing posts about life as an artist are interesting. It’s hard to tell without some feedback. Still, I’ll probably continue writing about them because they help me work through the maelstrom of my thought process.

Today we take another look at my limited arsenal of pop-psychological tricks: how to get from research to action. For those of you who have any experience with role-playing games, it’s almost as easy as a saving throw versus data overload.

When I’m doing something for the first time I have a tendency to do a lot of research before taking action. Some would argue that I turn research into an obsession, and given the evidence I plead guilty. Research isn’t always a bad thing, but sometimes the information overload can be paralyzing. It can become an end in itself, and rather than serving as a tool in the decision process, research can create a situation where the data seem to recommend indecision.

Last fall I read The Paradox of Choice by American psychologist Barry Schwartz, which describes in great detail this tendency towards research over action. The book gives many excellent descriptions of this phenomenon—some would say too many descriptions—and offers some strategies for overcoming the problems it causes.

Schwartz’ main idea is that in contemporary society, the infinite options available in any situation—from simple things like grocery and clothes shopping to larger issues such as financial planning, careers, relationships and such—make it more difficult for some people to make decisions than in so-called “simpler” times. That we have almost infinite research capability available through the internet, and have so many more data inputs than before only exacerbates the situation. The title of the book comes from the difference between our idea that choice equals freedom equals easy decision making, and the reality that for some people this freedom of choice creates a crippling tendency towards inaction.

It is not a question of data overload, however. Instead, Schwartz describes a continuum of psychological states which polarize on what he calls “maximizers” and “satisficers.”

Maximizers are always on the lookout for the best outcome: the best price or the best quality goods, the most compatible mate, the perfect chocolate sauce. These people set extremely high standards, and will not make a decision until their high standards are met. Even then, they often experience buyer’s regret because they think they could have gotten a better deal/product/service/outcome. This means that in the rare cases when maximizers finally make a decision, they are usually unhappy about it. As well, this kind of personality has a tendency to spend a great deal of time defining the specifications for an eventual decision. Unfortunately, these specifications are often unreasonable and/or unrealistic. A great deal of second-guessing of decisions happens here.

In contrast, satisficers—a word whose origin I’m uncertain about, but which I think is a hybrid of “satisfy” and “suffice”—are likely to set realistic standards and goals for a given situation, and once they have found a product or service that meets these standards, they make a decision and move on. These people are comparatively more content that maximizers. Whereas maximizers are on the lookout for the best outcome the merely “satisfactory” outcome of the satisficer is often objectively better because there is an outcome, rather than a constant wheel-spinning of analysis.

Schwartz has a tendency to emphasize these extremes as a pair of binary opposites, rarely reminding us that these are two extremes on a continuum. What I’ve found with myself is that my position along this continuum is dependent on the context. For example, when it comes to technology and measurable outcomes, I behave like a pure maximizer, and drown myself in research. But when it comes to matters of personal taste such as art or music or food, I am often closer to the satisficer end. There is a bit of a feedback loop here, though. Frequently I am driven to do exhaustive research about a musician after I’ve found one that I like. But these curatorial/collecting tendencies come post facto and aren’t part of any decision process that might have led to my discovery of an artist’s music.

I seem to recall some defusing of value judgements of these two personality types. I think Schwartz recognizes that there is potential for people to see satisficers as low achievers, and maximizers as high achievers, especially in employment or hiring situations. To counteract this he points out that a maximizer with unreasonably high expectations is just as bad as a satisficer with unreasonably low expectations. In the first situation an employee might do nothing because nothing is good enough, and the second situation is just as bad because the employee will be content with poor work.

My only complaint about The Paradox of Choice is a flaw that it is typical of books which appear to be geared primarily towards business people. Simply put, Schwartz repeats himself too much, and when illustrating a point gives many more examples than necessary. I found that I could read the first couple of examples, and then skim a few pages until a new concept was introduced. This isn’t a major flaw, however. Even though the book is padded with a great deal of what I feel is extraneous data, the core idea is really interesting. And perhaps the repetition is necessary for the boneheads who don’t grasp a concept until the tenth or twelfth example.

So how does this apply to my art practice? Simply recognizing the situation allows me to route around my maximizer tendencies. I’m still driven to perfectionism in the creation of work, but I’m starting to learn to set more reasonable parameters for my activities. I don’t want to sound too full of myself, but I have such high standards for myself that work I judge to be only just barely making the grade, is to others often of extremely high quality.

I still do a lot of research and preparation, but I think a greater proportion is actually useful, and a lot less of it is maximizer-induced procrastination.

For those of you in Saskatoon who are interested in reading The Paradox of Choice, I’d suggest you borrow a copy from the Saskatoon Public Library.

3 thoughts on “Research-Induced Paralysis: The Paradox of Choice

  1. I feel you here, Ed. I often paralyze myself with my standards. But hey, I like to do work that I am proud of. It just takes a bit longer sometimes! I should probably try to let myself be a little more “human” sometimes, whatever that means.

  2. It’s not so much that I compromise the quality of my work by settling for “good enough” as much as I try not to set myself up for failure by giving myself unattainable specifications.

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