Unfortunately, I came to this book a bit late. And even more unfortunately, I read Daniel Gilbert's breezily engaging "Stumbling On Happiness" before taking this one in. I say that because - though I found "The Paradox of Choice" to be a solid and effectively-argued treatise on the very modern problem of consumer inundation - there is an almost-overwhelming amount of overlapping studies from that book to this one.
Need proof? Well, be careful what you wish for! Because I, obsessive nerd that I am, actually kept track. The repeated studies are as follows (and please feel free to skip this paragraph if you haven't read "Stumbling"): the unpleasant noise/colonoscopy "peak end" experiment (pp. 49-50, paperback edition); the college student snack-picking survey (p. 51), the 3rd letter/1st letter demonstration of the availability heuristic (page 58); the $100 coin flip risk assessment analysis (p.65); the $20 concert ticket example of "sunk costs" (pp.70-3); the "experience sampling method" (p.106); trade offs involving new car options (p.124), the picture choosing study (p.138); the lottery/quadriplegic examples of hedonic temperature on p.170. And I could go on (really!), but I think I'll spare you (and me) the trouble.
Suffice it to say, if you read "Stumbling on Happiness," you will find a lot of repeat material here. And you may find that frustrating, as I sometimes did. If you're still interested in the ideas (and solutions) presented in this book, I recommend you pick it up in the library and just read chapters 4 and 11, which for all practical purposes can serve as a condensed version of the entire work.
But even if you haven't read "Stumbling," there's still quite a bit of this book that can be skimmed past without missing too much - especially in the beginning. In chapters one and two, the author goes a little overboard (perhaps intentionally?) in showing us just how easy it is to drown in the sea of choices that can be made in every facet of life.
It all becomes a bit repetitive and recurring and redundant and sometimes makes its points a few too many times over (much like I just did in this very sentence - annoying, isn't it?). I mean, the "jeans story" in the prologue is amusing and easy to relate to, but in Part I of the book ("When We Choose") we have to hear about how many options are involved in (*takes a deep breath*) groceries and gadgets and catalogs and academics and entertainment and utilities and health insurance and retirement plans and medical care and beauty and work and love and worship and identity. (*falls on ground, gasping for air*)
I GET it, Barry! I UNDERSTAND there are too many choices in the world - that's why I bought your gol-danged book! For the impatient readers out there, I would suggest skipping these chapters entirely (but then again, that would entail you having to make another choice, and I don't want to burden you with yet another one - so forget I mentioned it, okay?)
Thankfully, it gets better. Part II ("How We Choose") is decidedly more rewarding (save for the repeat studies mentioned above). On pages 77-8, Schwartz lays out his central construct of "maximizers vs. satisficers": "If you seek and accept only the best, you are a maximizer...The alternative to maximizing is to be a satificer. To satisfice is to settle for something that is good enough and not worry about the possibility that there might be something better."
And until the final chapter, the rest of the book (aka Part III: "Why We Suffer") is spent convincingly (albeit somewhat relentlessly) warning against the energy-draining dangers of "maximizing" and extolling the virtues of "satisficing." (And, let the record show, it is never explained (in my copy, anyway), where the term "satisficing" comes from. I suppose it is an amalgam of "satisfy" and "suffice," but to this reader it seems a little forced, unnecessary and even a bit pretentious - and I usually like dumb wordplay.)
I truly enjoyed the ensuing discussions about concepts such as: the wealth/availability of choices in various nations and how it correlates (or doesn't) to happiness; harnessing the power of second order decisions; how to best deal with opportunity costs (according to standard economic assumptions); the confounding qualities inherent in trade-offs; how counterfactuals can be used for the power of good; and the vagaries of such things as "inaction inertia" and "positional goods."
(And by the way, if the above list sounds a bit dry to your ears... that's because it is. The writing in this book exists on the cusp between the conversational and the academic. It's not quite as engaging or chatty as the prose of other pop-science authors like Leavit or Gladwell or Gilbert, but it's not so dry that you could use it to mop up nasty spills...)
Along the way, a collection of not-very-funny half- to full-page New Yorker comic strip panels appear every 25 pages or so and don't do a heck of a lot to spice up the proceedings. Also, the penultimate chapter on depression seems to come out of nowhere and has little to do with the rest of the book.
But the final chapter (found in Part IV: "What We Can Do") does a nice job of summing up the concepts and suggesting possible coping strategies. Though I struggled at times with the pace and the tone of this book (perhaps because I was spoiled by "Stumbling"), I still think there is enough good stuff in here to merit a perusal.