The American psychologist Barry Schwartz has called it the paradox of choice: too much choice tends to paralyze our critical thinking, leading to stress and prompting us to choose the first thing we see. A classic experiment cites customers of a large retail chain, whether instore or online: faced with an almost unlimited number of products their ability to choose “freezes”. Freedom becomes a paradox.
Freedom of choice is not enough
This is exactly why, Cass R. Sunstein explains, “freedom of choice is not enough”. To be free, whether the issue involves jobs, health, relationships or money, “we need to be able to navigate life”, to design alternative scenarios rather than improbable escape plans.
We need maps to navigate the world of work, health and relationships. Maps that help people to reach their destinations, prevent them getting lost
Professor at Harvard Law School, former advisor to the Supreme Court and the U.S. Department of Justice, administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration, Sunstein is co-author together with Richard Thaler (Nobel prize for economics) of the ground-breaking book: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale University Press, 2008).
Navigability: not to be underestimated
In his latest very readable and lively book On Liberty, Sunstein invites us to consider and embrace three concepts:
- Nudges, a gentle push by means of which legislation and institutions can simplify our choices;
- Agency, in other words our ability to modify the context in which we operate;
- Navigability, the ability to get out of unplanned or even unforeseeable situations.
In today’s complex democratic societies, navigability is the main problem. Finding one’s way around an airport or city, or even around a sub-system (like bureaucracy and legal systems) can be tricky.
“When life is hard to navigate,” Sunstein explains, “people are less free”, even though the number of choices open to them appears to be greater.
Indeed, the more choices we have, the more difficult it is to navigate and find that specific job, that state of well-being, that result and finding a particular law becomes an insurmountable hurdle.
We often need directions and asking for them is not always ideal. That is why we need to design systems that make it easy to understand the direction we should take.
From such a perspective, freedom of choice is still pivotal. Yet the wrong objective or subjective choices could damage it beyond repair.
As a consequence, in addition to reforming systems by way of more appropriate “navigable” architectures (just think of simplifying legislation or cutting red tape in the world of work), there is a need to provide people with the skills to help them find their way through uncertainty and reach their goals.
Freeing ourselves of present bias
This becomes crucial, Sunstein concludes, when the self-control system fails. When people become disoriented, they tend to lose their capacity to make decisions and end up with problems (like depression, alcoholism, an addiction to gambling), which undermine their capacity to make choices.
So, what can be done? To overcome these and lesser problems and learn to navigate, we need to move beyond the cognitive bias which Sunstein calls present bias.
“Present bias” is the increasingly common tendency to be satisfied with a small reward today rather than waiting for a greater reward in the future, for example by investing in ourselves and our education.
To be free then, it is not enough to have choices. We need to be able to find our way, equipping ourselves with systems that serve to narrow down rather than broaden our options.
“In both rich and poor countries, citizens often have no idea how to get to their desired destination. That is why they are unfree,” Sunstein explains, concluding that “we need to understand that freedom is a goal, not something we have already been given. Otherwise, we will never achieve that goal.”