Privacy Advisor

A Conversation with Barry Schwartz

February 7, 2011

 

Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less and professor of social therapy and social action at Swarthmore College, will be a keynote speaker at the IAPP Global Privacy Summit in March.

In advance of the event, Schwartz shared his insights into how the theme of his book—that too many choices can actually spawn inaction and dissatisfaction—relates to privacy.

Privacy Advisor: In your book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, you explore the idea that too many choices, instead of opening opportunities, may actually drive people into inaction and dissatisfaction. Could you share an anecdote from your book or experiences illustrating this reality?

SCHWARTZ: My personal anecdotes are many. I go to a Web site to buy a digital camera. I'm not fussy; it's no big deal. All I do is take snapshots of my grandchildren. I exit 30 minutes later, deciding to keep the camera that I have. So many options and so many features. Sure, you could just ignore a lot, but then you start to feel like a bit of a fool.

"If they make cameras in so many flavors with so many features, surely I should care."

Or I go to a retail store that sells crafts made in developing countries to buy a gift. There is so much stuff in there, and each thing detracts from the others. The result is no purchase and no gift. These personal examples are trivial, and they are mere anecdotes, but they conform to lab studies showing how choice can paralyze, even when it comes to non-trivial decisions, like participating in company retirement plans, or, in the case of many of my students, deciding what to do when they graduate from college.

PA: The potential implications for overabundance of choices apply across many disciplines. What are your thoughts on the choice factor when it comes to the balancing act many describe of trading personal information for such services as online searches or social interactions?

SCHWARTZ: This is a deep question and a profound challenge. One way to "solve" the choice overload problem is by allowing online Web sites to get to "know" you and filter the options you face down to a manageable number.

But, of course, the more you take advantage of that, the more you compromise your privacy. I think the main task facing organizations that worry about Internet privacy is to figure out a "default" level of privacy that enables people to benefit from what the Web makes available and not be tortured by it. Then, it needs to figure out simple and straightforward ways for people to deviate from that default.

PA: Can you give us a preview of your keynote address at this year’s IAPP Global Privacy Summit?

I'll be talking about how too much choice produces paralysis rather than liberation, leads to bad decisions and reduces satisfaction with even good decisions. And I'll make a few suggestions about what can be done to overcome the choice problem.