Friday, September 08, 2006

An Interview with Barry Schwartz

On how people make choices ...

"UIE’s Jared M. Spool recently had the chance to talk with Barry about his research on how people make choices. You can listen to the podcast of the interview on the Brain Sparks blog. Here’s the transcript of the interview:

Jared M. Spool: So we’re talking today with Barry Schwartz, who’s the author of "The Paradox of Choice, and professor at Swarthmore College. Welcome, Barry.

Barry Schwartz: Hi.

Jared: Hi. I’m curious, how did you get interested in this topic? How did this all sort of start?

Barry: Well, there’s a short and a long answer to that. The short answer is that I went to buy a pair of jeans, and if you’ve read my book, that’s how my book begins. That used to be a 40 second affair. I just walked in, told them my size, and walked out with the jeans, that turned into an hour-long ordeal because I told them my size, they then asked me which of a dozen styles I wanted, and that, of course, required that I try them all on.

What happened was, I got the best-fitting jeans I had ever owned and felt worse about it than I had ever felt before. And that really got me thinking, why should it be that I do better and I feel worse? The result, some years later, was this book, which tries to answer that question. How can people do better in a world with so many choices and feel worse about how they do? That’s the short answer.

The longer answer is that I’ve been thinking for 20 years and writing for 20 years about the ideology of free markets that dominate the economics and what we know from psychology about how people actually work. The principle justification and celebration of free market is the choice that it gives people, so if it turns out that that’s a mixed blessing, then the other so-called virtues of the free market need to be examined more carefully. As I say, I’ve thought about and written about how economists get the psychology wrong for 20 years, and this is just one specific aspect of that more general project of mine.

Jared: As you’ve been doing research into choice, how do you go about figuring out how people make choices? What are the types of research methods that you’re using?

Barry: The laboratory mostly involves giving people hypothetical sets of options that are described and then seeing whether there’s some consistency on how people choose among those options and then trying to model the implicit mechanisms of information gathering, information evaluation, and attaching value to things. And often it’s like hypothetical gambles. Would you rather have 10 dollars for sure, or a 50/50 chance to win 20 dollars? You ask people millions of questions like that and you come up with a kind of psychology of choice and of value. But none of that really addressed the question of choice magnitude as a variable, because typically, people would just be given two options to choose from and it never occurred to anyone that how many options there were might matter."   (Continued via UIE)   [Usability Resources]

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