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Postcards from Scotland

Summary of Professor Schwartz presentation

Barry Schwartz’s best-selling book, The Paradox of Choice, unravels one of the great paradoxes of our time: why all the choice and freedom we now have in modern society is not translating into more happiness and may even be leading to increased depression. Indeed Professor Schwartz makes a compelling case that the abundance of choice in today’s western world is actually making us miserable and exhausted.

Paradoxically, while modern life overburdens people with choice in some areas, it deprives them of choice in other areas—areas in which choice is essential. In the second part of his talk—on "practical wisdom"—Professor Schwartz focused on the choices worth having. He argued that in interacting with other people, be they friends, lovers, children, clients, coworkers, patients, or students, we need the improvisational skill of a jazz musician. Practical wisdom—the will to do the right thing and the skill to figure out what the right thing is—is what gives us the judgement to know when and how to improvise. Yet, in an effort to improve the quality of education, medicine, social services, and nearly everything else, society has increasingly relied on rules and incentives to get us to do the right thing. Excess reliance on rules undermines the needed skill, and excess reliance on incentives undermines the needed will.

Thus, as it turns out, we need less choice in the domain of goods and services, and more choice in the domain of relations with others, to make good decisions, and lead satisfying lives.

This is a topic of profound relevance to all of us – as individuals, managers/ leaders and policy-makers.


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