by Mary Turzillo
If you are like me, every so often a book really ticks you off. So it was with Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice, a book I read in its entirety in the Harvard Bookstore in about two hours. My annoyance at the premise of this book simmered, and finally, after a more careful rereading of the book, I had to write a short story as a kind of reductio ad absurdum. Thus came “Hobson’s Choice,” in the Jan/Feb 2018Analog. [Her newest story, “Car Talk” is in the March/April issue on sale now.]
Schwartz’s thesis was that people are happiest when they aren’t presented with a lot of choices. He starts with an anecdote about trying to buy a pair of jeans, and discovering that he had too many choices as to fit. Too many choices! This for some reason drove him crazy. Why not just have a few sizes of jeans? That way he wouldn’t have to THINK, a process that he posits always leads to unhappiness. My thought: of course he might always have to wear a pair of jeans that were too tight in the crotch, or that dragged on the ground because they were a half inch too long, or that made him look fat (I suspect he doesn’t care about that, but then, he’s a guy).
Then he gives us the research. Amazingly enough, people are perfectly happy with a limited choice of neckties rather than a larger array (male people, you might note). NECKTIES? Excuse me? This is supposed to be the paradigm for our life choices?
Schwartz is horrified that the public is forced to choose among over a hundred brands of shampoo. Gracious! I wonder if he considers that each of the many brands are produced by some entrepreneur who actually thinks they have a role to play in safely getting hair clean, and that these people deserve an opportunity to offer their wares.
Even when it comes to health care decisions, he says we’re better off leaving it to Big Brother (AKA the Medico-Industrial-Insurance Complex). Wait! Are you kidding? I am DEFINITELY going on http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/ to discover everything I can about my loved one’s cancer treatment. I don’t want nasty surprises because we left it all to Big Brother, who thought I wouldn’t care about little details like, I don’t know, sexual malfunction? Hideous scars that needn’t be there? Diabetes? Possible brain damage?
He categorizes people into Maximizers (bad, stupid people) and Satificers (good, smart people). The former spend way too much time trying to get things right, he says, when they should be enjoying life by letting other people make decisions for them. Satisficers are good because they just grab the first bottle of wine off the shelf, and if it tastes like pancake syrup or bleach, it will still make them happy and probably won’t even make them sick, because they’ll have all that free time to—what?
I am a self-confessed Maximizer. It took me three years to find the house I am presently living in, and I love this house: its layout, the sturdiness of its basic construction, and the fact that it looks out onto a beautiful park. I might have been satisfied if I were in a hurry with that house that needed “only” about twenty grand of repairs, or the one with the strange floorplan that required crossing a sunken living room to get from the master bedroom to the bathroom, or the one with the huge mural of a mermaid (with horns) in the living room.
I searched for two years to buy my present car, a Prius that I would cheerfully adopt and leave my estate to in my will, except that legally you can’t adopt cars, and I’m leaving my estate to my husband. In an afterward, Schwartz admonishes that instead of spending all that time deciding on a car, I should have been schmoozing with my best friend. Well, the “best friend” (my husband Geoff) was with me on several of my test drives, and in fact gave me the straight dope on his own Prius. Is that not bonding? We actually enjoyed this process. Anyway, if an inferior safety system in a car chosen more or less at random causes my death, I won’t be doing much best-friend bonding, will I?
Can you guess? It turns out that Good Enough was not in fact Good Enough.
As to his prediction that I will be disappointed in the car two months later, I am not. A year and a half later, I sometimes sit in it listening to Queen’s “I’m in Love with my Car” on fabulous audio system because I chose carefully.
And that, of course, brings me to the whole life-time mate thing. Everybody told me that I would never find the perfect husband, so frankly, my first husband was NOT perfect, at least for me. But time was ticking and he was Good Enough.
Can you guess? It turns out that Good Enough was not in fact Good Enough. Upon more careful examination, he had several features I did not like, which I will not go into in detail, because although he is now dead, his subsequent widow and children live on and might read this. (I was probably not Good Enough for him, either.) I had standards, and if I’d ignored the ticking of the clock (I was, geez, all of twenty three) and if I had looked for the Perfect Mate, I might have found him. As it happens, I did, although it seems to have taken me a few years. (Geoff, if you’re reading this, this means you.)
In Schwartz’s acknowledgements, he confesses to going through multiple drafts of his opus. But doesn’t that sound like a Maximizer? Shouldn’t he have been satisfied with just one-through?
Schwartz also mentions his wife (or at least somebody with his same last name) in his acknowledgments. I don’t know anything about either of their personal lives, but I have to wonder if he’s just ticked off that it takes her more than fifteen minutes to find a pair of shoes that fit, while he taps his fingers waiting for her in the mall. Maybe that was the impetus for this book.
Apparently Schwartz thinks that research, shopping, and investigating options are all irksome. He probably has some alternative activities (watching TV? complaining about Other People’s lives?) that are more pleasant for him. But some of us Maximizers actually enjoy comparison shopping and calculating future benefits. To each his own.
Here’s the bottom line: Schwartz is bringing up the old old question: would you rather be free or would you rather be happy? And frankly, although it’s more work, I think you can be both.
Mary Turzillo’s latest novel is Mars Girls, Apex 2017, an adaptation of An Old-Fashioned Martian Girl, which appeared in Analog. Her Lovers & Killers, won the 2013 Elgin Award. Her work has appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, Goblin Fruit, and other magazines, and has been translated into French, Mandarin, Italian, and Russian. She was a nominee on the British Science Fiction, Stoker, Dwarf Stars, and Rhysling ballots. Sweet Poison, with Marge Simon, won the 2015 Elgin Award. Satan’s Sweethearts, also with Simon, was on the Stoker ballot and is now on the Elgin ballot. Her latest project is A Mars Cat and his Boy. She lives in Berea, with her scientist-writer husband, Geoffrey Landis. She represented the U.S. in the World Veterans Cup in foil fencing in 2016.