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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 27/10/2005

Before leaving work today we recorded the latest in the Vanguard Distance learning lectures. This one was given by Professor Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor in the US and author of The Paradox of Choice. One of the great things about Professor Schwartz is that he makes you feel normal. Before I first heard him talk, several years ago now, I thought that my inability to make a decision when I was faced by an array of options was just something about me and my indecisiveness. I also thought that I was just very lazy about doing research about telecom deals or finding out the best credit card rates. But Professor Schwartz quotes all sorts of research which shows that the more choice a person has the more likely they are not to make a decision. If they do make a decision then the more likely they are also to doubt they’ve made a good decision. Regret and even loss of confidence can easily set in.

After hearing Barry Schwartz talk about choice I went out and bought his book and got a huge amount out of it. Schwartz’s basic premise is that choice is paradoxical in that some choice is important to freedom, feelings of personal control and self-expression. But increasing choice for people does not necessarily mean that they experience more control or freedom: in fact the opposite is often the case. The more choice we have the more we feel overwhelmed and the less able we are to feel fulfilled and satisfied.

Schwartz is yet another voice pointing out that many people in the western world now have a great deal of disposable income and previously unheard of opportunities yet there is a huge rise in depression and happiness levels for the majority have hardly shifted. He thinks that one of the reasons for this is that what brings people real happiness is spending time with close friends and family, yet so much of our psychic energy is wasted in consumer decisions which are intrinsically unsatisfying.

Schwartz advises that if we want to lead more satisfied and meaningful lives we should stop trying to maximise our choices. IN other words, stop trying to get the best job, the best hotel, the best meal as these are illusory and the pursuit becomes unfulfilling and self-defeating. Instead we should simply settle for ‘good enough’.

Schwartz’s work has huge importance not only for our personal lives but also for the way we run public services. Choice is the great mantra not only of the Blair Government but also public service providers elsewhere in the world. But Schwartz quotes research which shows that while people may think that they want to make the choice about the type of medical care they get from a doctor if they have cancer, for example, the reality is different if people do get cancer. Then they want a professional and compassionate doctor they can trust who will make the decisions for them.

If you have signed up for the Vanguard make a big effort to listen to this lecture as it has so much relevance to all our lives. If you aren’t on the programme see if you can get hold of a copy of his book and read for yourself about the real paradox of choice.

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