Paradox of choice, Buridan’s ass, and a recommendation on jeans
Barry Schwartz has recently appeared with an emphatic statement that choice does not make us free, unlike our Western belief system seems to suggest. Quite the opposite, it paralyzes us. And even if we are able to overcome paralysis, we end up less satisfied than we would be (or is it could?). At least, that’s how it works with too much choice, according to Schwartz. This is what he calls the paradox of choice. He is psychologist by profession, and has numerous studies into the matter; so most probably, in our vein endeavor to remain scientific, we should believe him. Then again, from a philosophical point of view, there are plenty of problems with his statements. I will limit myself to his example of buying jeans….
So what is it with men and jeans? Easy, we think we look cool, regardless of the occasion, jeans make you look cooler than the rest. Even more so when they are not wearing jeans, or when the occasion is supposed such that you should not be wearing jeans. I wish Levi’s or Lee would pay me for this statement – they don’t, but maybe one day.
So back to Barry Schwartz and jeans. As he describes it (you can listen from this point how Barry Schwartz amusingly tells the story himself):
You walk into a shop to buy a pair of jeans. The problem is that you are no longer restricted to a size (as you were in the good old days); but shop keeper will ask you all sorts of questions: “washed? Do you want them distressed? You want boot cut, you want tapered, blah blah blah….”
So our psychologist’s conclusion seems to be quite to the point – with all this choice, if you have noticed with your own behavior, we actually paralyze for a moment (at least). And what is worse, we do not feel good with the choice we have gotten, because we always think that there was another choice that may have been better (according to him!).
And here is where we part ways, and where some history of philosophy comes in handy. In philosophy a paralysis in choice is already sufficient when one is faced between only two choices (the minimum). Although attributed to Buridan, the actual passage come from Aristotle (The Philosopher, as he was know in the day):
“the men who, though exceedingly hungry and thirsty, and both equally, yet being equidistant from food and drink, is therefore bound to stay where he is” (On the Heavens, Book II, part 13.III, J.L. Stocks translation; I am aware that Aristotle has a different point in mind).
As Buridan’s ass exemplifies, the choice between water and hay (in some version identical piles of hay) is already paralyzing. What does this tell us, at this stage, about the paradox of choice that Barry Schwartz has in mind?
First, that choice itself can be paralyzing, it need not be an infinite plurality of choices. Second, that the paralysis is only possible when the desire for an object is equally great between two (or more) objects of desire. Something Freudian comes into play here – it is not choice that paralyzes, but desire. Perhaps even with hay and water, one would be able to speak of a sexual desire?
There are several solutions possible to this paradox. One is an ancient one, and seems to be a commentary on Aristotle. It comes from a little known philosopher (outside a circle of experts on medieval philosophy), though he was perhaps one of the most influential ones to reinvigorate philosophy in the West – Al-Ghazali. Al-Ghazali points towards two possible solutions (though his style is quite confusing; I blame it on the translators):
“For we will suppose that there are two equal dates in front of someone gazing longingly at them, unable, however, to take both together. He will inevitably take one of them” (The Incoherence of the Philosophers, M.E. Marmura translation)
1. In order to state that two possibilities exist between two choices, one is to be able to differentiate between the two choices. The possibility of differentiation already permeates to a possibility of a choice to be made; i.e. without the possibility of differentiation, one does not distinguish between two objects as such (neither between hay and water, nor between two piles of hay) and hence one will not need to make a choice (except perhaps whether to have a date or note):
“Will stands as an expression for an attribute whose function — nay, its essence — is to differentiate a thing from its similar” (The Incoherence of the Philosophers, M.E. Marmura translation)
2. Al-Ghazali speaks of necessity in choice. Where Buridan’s ass starves to death, Al-Ghazali finds such an outcome impossible. By sheer necessity one will make a choice!
The second solution, one could argue, is not really a solution as such. It’s avoiding the paradox. Nevertheless, the first solution is quite perplexing.
What does it tell us, at this stage, about Barry Schwartz and how to buy jeans? Obviously that Schwarz’ analysis is pertinent to some people who do not themselves differentiate between the objects they want to buy (e.g. jeans), but listen to the salesman and all the varieties, and so on. For Schwartz got lost in the sales, he was no longer buying jeans, but buying desire. At this stage, his analysis comes short in that it identifies specific objects with desires. Certainly, many objects are not simply objects (I still want a Ferrari, since I was 5); and there is no reason to the object itself – it is guided by desire (Freudian Oedipal desire? or Lacanian desire of the Other?). Nevertheless, Schwartz seems to confuse his object of study: it is not choice that leads to paralysis as such – strictly speaking, choice is only possible precisely when there is as differentiation to be made. It is the moment when that differentiation is blurred (one wants to say a lack of choice despite there being numerous objects) that leads to paralysis.