By Simona Botti – London Business School
Schwartz and Cheek re-examine the presumption that more choice freedom enhances well-being and posit that the relations among choice, freedom, and well-being are more complex than what is commonly assumed. Policy makers should therefore carefully consider the psychological costs and benefits of choosing when designing their interventions. To facilitate such considerations, Schwartz and Cheek propose five guideline questions.
Do people want more choice? Schwartz and Cheek contend that individuals’ preference for more, versus less, choice may not be as robust as portrayed by prior research (Leotti, Iyengar, and Ochsner, 2010). In my opinion, this preference can be explained by the presumption mentioned at the beginning: choice is commonly preferred because it is assumed to be beneficial. The more people believe that choice increases decision quality, improves well-being, does not impose a burden, and expands freedom, the more likely they are to demand choice. The answer to this first question therefore depends, at least in part, on the next four.
Will more choice improve the quality of decisions? As explained by Schwartz and Cheek, according to rational choice theory, choice freedom improves decision quality because it allows for better preference matching. Indeed, the strength of decision makers’ preferences moderates the choice overload effect (Chernev, 2003). However, the domains in which people hold strong preferences are likely to be limited in number and difficult to predict. For example, people may be more confident about their preferences in self-expressive than in instrumental contexts because they are more likely to know how to express their personality than how to reach a specific higher-order goal. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon for people to delegate self-expressive choices to “image” experts or to excel at making certain utilitarian decisions. From a public policy standpoint, therefore, it makes sense to devise choice architectures that allow what Schwartz and Cheek dub “second-order decision making,” in which individuals self-assign to decision-making contexts characterized by more or less choice on the basis of their interests and expertise.
Will more choice improve well-being? Although choice has been linked to enhanced psychological well-being, this effect is determined by the sense of personal control that is usually associated with choice (Langer, 1975). Accordingly, when the act of choosing is deprived of a feeling of agency, choosers’ well-being becomes more similar to that of non-choosers (Botti and McGill, 2006). This perspective is shared by Schwartz and Cheek, who liken choice freedom to autonomy and self-determination. Research has shown that choice freedom is only one of the sources of perceived personal control (Inesi et al., 2011), with other sources being power, predictability, mastery and self-efficacy. The idea that personal control is multi-determined allows public policy makers a more varied set of potential interventions. Instead of focusing on how well-being is influenced by different choice architectures, they could take a broader approach and consider how well-being is affected by making decisions more predictable, empowering decision makers, or influencing their sense of mastery and self-efficacy.
Will more choice impose too much of a burden? Schwartz and Cheek correctly argue that choice freedom involves cognitive costs that, in certain situations, may overwhelm its benefits. One way for public policy makers to address this issue would be to create choice architectures that reduce the mental effort of perusing the different choice alternatives, for example by categorizing or sequencing the options in ways that simplify the decision-making task (Broniarczyk and Griffin, 2014). A different approach would be to encourage people to delegate choices (Usta and Häubl, 2011). And yet, delegation implies trust both in the expertise of the agent and in the agent’s willingness to act in the principal’s best interest. Recent societal trends appear to undermine both elements of trust. On one hand, the rise of social media and user-generated ratings on websites has reduced the need for, and the faith in, expert advice (De Langhe, Fernbach, and Lichtenstein, 2016). On the other hand, the current political climate reveals a general scepticism toward experts’ and institutions’ intentions to actually serve the public (The Economist, September 10, 2016). Long-term interventions aimed at restoring people’s trust in experts and institutions could shift policy makers’ efforts from facilitating individual choices to facilitating delegation.
Will more choice make people more free? This question relates to another idea proposed by Schwartz and Cheek, namely the possibility that choice freedom may focus people on trivial, versus meaningful, pursuits. Modern individuals have almost unconstrained access to choices in many different life domains, as well as the opportunity to reconsider and change any past choice. However, what if this increase in choice occasions and options does not make people more free, but simply enhances the illusion of being free? For example, daily exposure to an abundance of relatively mundane choices may satisfy people’s need for autonomy such that they may be more likely to ignore those choices that really matter in their lives. Similarly, the emotional and cognitive exhaustion caused by the continuous revisitation of past choices may prevent people from making the most of their outcomes. Choosing not to choose, as well as gaining closure with one’s past choices (Gu, Botti, and Faro, 2013), can be as liberating as choosing to choose.
Read the full article from Schwartz and Cheek Choice, freedom, and well-being: considerations for public policy for free in the first issue of Behavioural Public Policy here.
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