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Self-Determination: The Tyranny of Freedom

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Abstract

Americans now live in a time and a place in which freedom and autonomy are valued above all else and in which expanded opportunities for self-determination are regarded as a sign of the psychological well-being of individuals and the moral well-being of the culture. This article argues that freedom, autonomy, and self-determination can become excessive, and that when that happens, freedom can be experienced as a kind of tyranny. The article further argues that unduly influenced by the ideology of economics and rational-choice theory, modern American society has created an excess of freedom, with resulting increases in people's dissatisfaction with their lives and in clinical depression. One significant task for a future psychology of optimal functioning is to deemphasize individual freedom and to determine which cultural constraints are necessary for people to live meaningful and satisfying lives.
Self-Determination
The Tyranny of Freedom
Barry Schwartz
Swarthmore College
Americans now live in a time and a place in which freedom
and autonomy are valued above all else and in which
expanded opportunities for self-determination are re-
garded as a sign of the psychological well-being of indi-
viduals and the moral well-being of the culture. This article
argues that freedom, autonomy, and self-determination can
become excessive, and that when that happens, freedom
can be experienced as a kind of tyranny. The article further
argues that unduly influenced by the ideology of economics
and rational-choice theory, modern American society has
created an excess of freedom, with resulting increases in
people's dissatisfaction with their lives and in clinical
depression. One significant task for a future psychology of
optimal functioning is to deemphasize individual freedom
and to determine which cultural constraints are necessary
for people to live meaningful and satisfying lives.
Security is more important than wealth.
--Jacob von Uexkull (1938/1954, p. 26)
L
et me tell you about an experience I had almost 20
years ago. It happened at a softball game, and to
understand it, you need to know a little bit about
softball. Imagine a situation in which there is a runner at
first base and one out. A ground ball is hit to the pitcher.
The pitcher fields the ground ball and wheels around to
second base. The idea is to try for a double play by
throwing to second ahead of the runner arriving from first,
and then having the throw relayed from second to first, in
time to beat the batter. Typically, when a ball is hit up the
middle of the diamond, the second baseman and the short-
stop converge at second base. When the pitcher fields the
ball and turns to throw, the proper play is to throw the ball
to the shortstop. The shortstop is moving toward first base,
while the second baseman is moving away from it. So the
shortstop's momentum will carry him in the direction that
the ball must be thrown, whereas the second baseman will
have to stop, pivot, and then throw. The throw from second
to first is much easier for the shortstop than for the second
baseman.
Now here is what happened. I had just begun a sab-
batical, and I was playing in a relaxed coed softball game.
Although winning at all costs was not the idea in this game,
there was one thing about it that was notably more serious
than anything else. The women in the game did not want to
be patronized; they wanted to be treated by the men as
full-fledged competitors. So I was pitching, and there was
one out and a runner on first. A ground ball was hit to me.
I fielded it cleanly and spun around to begin the try for a
double play. Both the shortstop, a man, and the second
baseman, a woman, were converging on second base to
receive: my throw. I wound up to throw and then stopped in
my tracks. Who should I throw to? I knew, as I just
indicated, that the "right" play was to throw to the short-
stop, but I hesitated. Would the woman understand that I
was throwing to the shortstop (who happened to be a man)
because it was the right play? Or would she think that I was
excluding her and throwing to the man (who happened to
be the shortstop) because I thought he was more likely to
catch it and throw accurately on to first than she was?
Would she think that I regarded her as an obstacle to be
avoided rather than as a teammate? Would she think I was
an enemy of one of the major social movements of our
time?
These questions flooded over me in what couldn't
have been more than half a second, and I still haven't
answered them. Why had I been so indecisive? What was
the right play? Yes, I knew that the right play was to throw
to the ,.~hortstop, but I came to realize that the rightness of
that choice depended on what I thought the game was that
we were playing. If we were merely playing softball, then
the shortstop should have gotten the throw, but we were
playing more than softball. We were also participating in a
social movement, one that was struggling to eliminate
certain well-established gender roles, and we were in-
volved in a complex social interaction, in which the feel-
ings and objectives of all participants were to be taken
seriously. What's the right play in that kind of a game?
When I finally threw the ball, I found an ingenious
though unintended way out of my indecision. My agonized
delay had forced me to rush my throw, so I "solved" my
problem in deciding whether the second baseman or the
shortstop should get the ball by throwing it to
neither
of
them. I threw it three feet over both of their heads into
centerfield. No double play. No single play. And that's no
Barry Schwartz, Department of Psychology, Swarthmore College.
Preparation of this article was supported by a faculty research grant
from Swarthmore College. I thank Jane Gillham and Andrew Ward for
many helpful discussions of the issues raised in this article.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Barry
Schwartz, Swarthmore College, 500 College Avenue, Swarthmore, PA
19081. Electronic mail may be sent to bschwarl @swarthmore.edu.
January 2000 ° American Psychologist
Copyright 2000 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 0003-066X/00/$5.00
Vol. 55, No. 1, 79-88 DOI: 10.1037//0003-066X.55.1.79
79
Barry
Schwartz
Photo by John Brodsky
way to play at all. I was confused about what to do, and I
screwed up.
This experience of mine on the softball field was
trivial, but I think it is an example of problems faced by
many of us that are not so trivial. Repeatedly, people are
forced to ask themselves what kind of game they are
playing, and what the fight play is in that kind of game. A
lot more rides on the answers to the versions of these
questions people face in real life than just the completion of
a double play.
What kind of game is being a student? Are the objec-
tives of the student game to get the best grades possible? If
so, a good student will find the easy courses, borrow (or
buy or steal) other students' assignments, and ingratiate
himself or herself in every way possible with the relevant
teachers. Are the objectives of the student game to prepare
for a career that will be financially rewarding? Are they to
prepare for a career that will be intellectually rewarding?
Are they to prepare for a career that will serve the public?
In any of these cases, a good student will map out a
program that provides appropriate training and then work
hard to develop the skills necessary for success in that
career. Possibly, the objectives of the student game have
nothing to do with careers but instead involve becoming a
knowledgeable, sensitive, compassionate, committed, eth-
ical person who will be an informed and responsible citi-
zen. The good student at this game will look very different
from the good student at the other games.
What kind of game is being a businessperson? Are
there any limits to what a businessperson should do in the
service of corporate interests? If so, who sets the limits, and
what are they? Should businesspeople be concerned about
ethics and fairness? Should they seek to provide a good or
service that the world genuinely needs? Should they be
honest with their customers and clients? Or should they
make whatever people will buy, tell people whatever they
think people will believe, and break any law if they think
they can get away with it?
What kind of game is being a spouse or a lover? To
what extent are lovers supposed to submerge their own
interests or desires to serve the interests or desires of their
partners'? At what point does devotion turn into subjuga-
tion? At what point does self-actualization turn into
selfishness?
Most of us play in several of these games simulta-
neously and find ourselves trying to answer questions like
these about each of them, because the world in which we
"modern, enlightened, rational" people live is one in which
the objectives and the rules of each of our games are very
much up for grabs. Modernity has taught us not to accept a
certain way of doing things just because things have always
been done in that way. Nowadays, it is possible, maybe
even necessary, for individuals to make up the rules of
games as they go along.
This modern flexibility in the construal and construc-
tion of the objectives and the rules of the "games" we play
enhances our sense of
self-determination,
and it is self-
determination that this article is about. The presumption in
modern society is that self-determination is a good thing,
both psychologically and morally.
Freedom
and
autonomy
are words that come to mind as rough synonyms. Before
pursuing this presumption, it is worth thinking a little about
what self-determination means. Does it mean determina-
tion
by
the self, or determination
of
the self, or both?
Determination by the self, which I suspect is what most
people mean by self-determination, leads to the further
question, determination of what? The answer to this ques-
tion is pretty much determination of everything. From
trivial things like choices of ice cream flavors, television
shows, clothing styles, and objectives in softball games to
crucial things like choices of careers, places to live, friends,
and lovers, there is simply no such thing as too much
freedom. What about determination of the self? What does
this mean? I think it means that people are free to determine
what kind of self they will have, what kind of people they
will be. People are free to be selfish or selfless, nasty or
nice, serious or frivolous, and they are free to change the
selves they have as they see fit. Selves are like shirts. One
can discard old ones and invent new ones. At least one
should be able to, in keeping with the goal of maximal
self-determination as a desirable psychological and moral
state. Thus, the fully self-determined self is one that is
completely unconstrained--by habit, by social convention,
or by biology. Operating without constraint, the self-deter-
mining self makes choices in the world to maximize his or
her preferences, in keeping with the principles of rational
choice (von Neumann & Morgenstern, 1944).
It is the central argument of this article that this
aspiration to self-determination, presumably through pro-
cesses resembling those of rational choice, is a mistake,
both as an empirical description of how people act and as
a normative ideal. It is a mistake because when self-
determination is carried to extremes, it leads not
to freedom
80 January 2000 American Psychologist
of choice but to tyranny of choice. A better (empirically
more accurate and psychologically healthier) model of
self-determination is, I think, akin to our understanding of
human linguistic abilities. The capacity to use language is
perhaps the single most liberating characteristic of human
beings. It frees people in significant ways from the tempo-
ral and material limitations that afflict other organisms.
People can say anything about anything, at any time, or in
any place--even things, times, and places that have never
existed--and they can be understood. Therefore, language
is probably as vivid an embodiment of human freedom and
self-determination as anything. But what decades of re-
search on language ability have made clear is that the thing
that makes the liberating features of language possible is
that language is heavily constrained by rules. The reason
people can say anything and be understood is that they
can't say everything. It is linguistic constraint, in the form
of these rules, that makes linguistic freedom possible. What
I suggest in this article is that exactly the same thing may
be true in connection with self-determination. Uncon-
strained freedom leads to paralysis and becomes a kind of
self-defeating tyranny. It is self-determination within sig-
nificant constraints--within rules of some sort--that leads
to well-being, to optimal functioning. The task for a future
psychology of optimal functioning is to identify which
constraints on self-determination are the crucial ones.
To make this argument, I begin by considering a few
aspects of rational-choice theory in some detail. There are
problems with rational-choice theory as an empirical de-
scription of how people choose, and many of these prob-
lems are a reflection of important constraints on freedom of
choice that the theory of rational choice leaves out and that
a positive theory of self-determination must include. What
we see is that these constraints function not to impede truly
rational choice but to enable it.
Preference, Choice, and Decision
Frames
Based largely on economics, rational-choice theory has
tried to explain human preference and choice by assuming
that people are rational choosers. According to the choice
theorist, human beings have well-ordered preferences--
preferences that are essentially impervious to variations in
the ways the alternatives they face are described or the
ways they are packaged or bundled. People go through life
with all their options arrayed before them, as if on a buffet
table. They have complete information about the costs and
benefits associated with each option. They compare the
options to one another on a single scale of preference, or
value, or utility. After making the comparisons, people
chose so as to maximize their preferences, or values, or
utilities. Well-being is understood to involve maximizing
the possibilities for choice, maximizing the number of
available options. A self is just the bundle of preferences
that happen to coexist inside a single skin, and self-deter-
mination is just the unfettered pursuit of those preferences.
Rational-choice theory is largely silent about where
preferences come from; preferences are frequently de-
scribed as exogenous to the model of rational choice,
meaning both that the model has nothing to say about them
and that whatever the story on the origins of preferences
may turn out to be, the power and validity of the model will
be unaffected by it. Although the former claim may well be
true, the latter is not (see Bowles, 1998). Human beings
violate the principles of rational choice routinely (e.g.,
Kahneman & Tversky, 1979, 1984; Tversky & Kahneman,
1981; see Baron, 1994; Schwartz, 1986, 1994, for discus-
sion), and the cause and character of many of these viola-
tions cannot be understood without understanding the na-
ture and origins of preferences themselves (see McCauley,
Rozin, & Schwartz, 1999). Making sense of people's
choices requires knowledge of the cultural institutions that
influence their lives. Indeed, how closely people approxi-
mate tile rational-choice theorist's portrait of preference
and choice depends on the kind of culture they inhabit.
Rational-choice theorists tell us that rational choosers
should always be able to express preferences. What this
means is not that one thing will always be preferred to
another, but that questions about preference will always be
intelligible. People will, for any A and B, be able to com-
pare the choices and say that they prefer A to B, that they
prefer B to A, or that they are indifferent between them. Is
this claim accurate'? Imagine someone who has just been
given a gift of $100. Should the person have a fine meal,
buy a few shirts, take a friend to the theater, or buy several
books? Afler some reflection, the person may well be able
to rank these options, which is to say that he or she can
express, preferences among them.
However, these options do not exhaust the things that
can be done with $100. It can be given to any of a number
of charities, or it can be used to buy groceries, to have the
house cleaned, to buy school books, for part of the plane
fare to a vacation spot, for part of the cost of having the
house painted, to have someone care for the lawn, or to
look after lhe children. The list of things one could do with
$100 is endless. Can people express preferences among all
these different possibilities? Is a good meal preferred to
having the house painted? Is child care preferred to a
vacation? Everyone may be able intelligibly to express
preferences among some of the things that can be done with
$100, but no one can express preferences among all of the
things that can be done with $100.
Indeed, nowadays the range of choices we face--even
among similar kinds of things--is overwhelming. We go to
the grocery and stop in the cereal aisle. Should we buy hot
or cold? Should we buy sugarcoated or (relatively) un-
sweetened'? Should we buy with or without bran? Should
we buy all[ bran, oat bran, rice bran, corn bran, cracklin'
bran, raisin bran, honey bran, or nut bran? We go to buy a
car. Should we buy new or used? Foreign or domestic?
Automatic or stick? Station wagon or sedan? Two-door or
four-door? Six-cylinder or four-cylinder? The array of op-
tions we face is simply mind-numbing. Thus, even when
we are faced with a choice among similar kinds of things,
the task is daunting. When the possibilities include things
with little or nothing in common, the problem is
overwhelming.
January 2000 American Psychologist 81
A person would, of course, eventually do
something
with the $100 (and from the perspective of an idea in
economics known as the
theory of revealed preference--
the economist's version of behaviorism--what people fi-
nally do with that $100 is, by definition, what they prefer
over all other possibilities). How would he or she decide to
do something with it instead of sitting paralyzed with
uncertainty while the $100 accumulates interest in a bank
account? One way of thinking about just how people go
about making choices is the idea that they organize the
world of possibilities into a set of distinct categories, cat-
egories like household necessities, household maintenance,
charity, one-night indulgences, longer term indulgences,
personal appearance. Within each category, it may be rel-
atively easy to express preferences. Between categories,
however, expressing preferences is more problematic. Ac-
cording to this view, when faced with the problem of
spending $100, one must first decide what category of thing
to spend it on. Once that is decided, one can follow the
dictates of preference within a category.
This formulation raises several questions. How does
one decide which categories to divide the world into? How
does one decide which specific things go in which catego-
ries? And how does one decide which category to devote
this
$100 to? The choice theorist's story about preference
and choice has nothing to say about the first two questions.
There are many factors that might influence the way in
which people categorize possibilities. Habit is one source
of influence, though it is important to note that people will
often be inarticulate, if not completely unaware, when
asked about their reasons for doing things that they do out
of habit (somewhat like a fish in water, never noticing that
it is wet). Cultural norms are another source of influence. In
our culture, clothing and hair care may both be considered
as pertaining to matters of appearance. However, one could
easily imagine a culture in which what people wear has
deep social--even religious--significance, whereas how
they keep their hair is a trivial detail. In that culture, a
haircut and a new shirt would not be lumped together.
What habits and cultural norms do is establish the effective
categories within which alternative actions will be com-
pared and ranked, and there is nothing about category
formation and category boundaries that the notion of ratio-
nal choice can speak to. As a result, knowing that people
are a rational choosers reveals very little about their
choices. It will not reveal which options they view (o1"
should view) as comparable and which they view (or
should view) as incomparable. All it can reveal is how
people will choose from within a category given that they
have already established the categories, and this is not very
much to reveal.
It is important to note that one of the triumphs of
modernity that we celebrate as a culture is precisely the
breakdown of categories like these. This is at least part of
what self-determination means; people get to create their
own categories. In this way, more of the self is open to
self-determination than ever before. Exactly how choices
such as these can be made rationally and whether people
actually experience this freedom of choice as liberating are
the questions. It was satisfying, 15 years ago, to be playing
in a coed softball game--to be engaged in politics, social-
izing, and recreation at the same time--but this opportu-
nity brought with it ambiguities that made the experience
less than completely successful.
To choose so that preferences are maximized, people
must know what is possible, and so the theory of rational
choice assumes that people choose with complete informa-
tion. A metaphor for choice with complete information is
the situation that people confront when eating at a Chinese
restaurant. There, arrayed on the menu, are countless dishes
along with their costs. In the closed universe of the Chinese
restaurant, complete information
is
available. People can
deliberate about the various possibilities, and when they
finally make a selection, it can truly be said to be prefer-
ence maximizing.
However, perfect information is a myth, even in a
Chinese restaurant. How many people really know what
each of the dishes available is like? How often do people
study the menu, awed and impressed at the variety avail-
able, only to order old favorites? Even in the closed and
simple world of the Chinese restaurant, factors other than
rational deliberation seem to govern choices. One of them,
again, is habit. After agonizing over all the possibilities,
people fall back, more often than not, on what they have
done before. Another factor is tradition. People sit there
trying to decide between novel shark's fin soup and famil-
iar hot and sour soup, and finally they choose one of them,
never considering the possibility that they could have both.
One simply doesn't have two soups at a meal. If people fall
back on habit and tradition even in a situation where
rational deliberation with full information is possible,
imagine how much more inclined they are to do so in the
situations of everyday life that are full of open-ended
uncertainty.
Modern rational-choice theory has acknowledged that
the assumption of complete information is extremely un-
realistic. Rather than assuming that people possess all the
relevant information for making choices, choice theorists
treat information as itself a "good," something that has a
price (in time or money) and is thus a candidate for con-
sumption along with more traditional goods (see, e.g.,
Payne, 1982; Payne, Bettman, & Johnson, 1993). Treating
information as a good makes the picture of rational choice
more realistic, but a significant question remains: How
much information is it rational to collect before actually
making a consumption decision? Therefore, treating infor-
mation as a good does not solve the problem of determining
what is or is not a rational way to proceed.
The message here is that just as there is a series of
constraints that makes real linguistic freedom possible in
the domain of language, in the domain of choice, there is
also a series of constraints on
theoretical
rational choice
that makes
actual
rational choice possible. Cultural insti-
tutions go a long way toward telling people where they can
choose and where they cannot, and within the domains
where choice is allowed, these institutions determine what
the possibilities are. These constraints on choice help solve
the information problem. They solve the problem of having
82 January 2000 ° American Psychologist
to compare things that are seemingly incomparable. In
addition, and perhaps more significant, traditional con-
straints on choice may tell people in which domains of their
lives the principles of rational choice are allowed to oper-
ate. They may protect patterns of behavior that are espe-
cially important to the functioning of the culture by remov-
ing them from the domain of choice altogether. Cultural
traditions invest certain practices with a great deal of moral
significance so that people will be discouraged from re-
garding them as matters of individual choice at all. Tradi-
tional morality serves as a kind of preventive medicine,
protecting people from themselves (e.g., Shweder, 1990,
1991; Shweder & LeVine, 1984).
These are a few of the ways in which the theory of
rational choice presents an inaccurate or at least an incom-
plete picture of human preference and choice. The idea that
people are rational choosers is on the one hand too rich, by
giving people credit for more calculation and flexibility
than they possess, and on the other hand too impoverished,
by failing to appreciate a range of influences on decision
making that are not themselves amenable to rational cal-
culation. In recent years, investigators of preference and
choice have come to see some of the limitations of the
rational-choice framework and have tried to make it more
realistic (see Baron, 1994, for a review). Central to these
efforts is the work of Kahneman and Tversky (1979, 1984;
Tversky & Kahneman, 1981) that highlights the signifi-
cance to choice of the manner in which alternatives are
framed.
Consider being posed with this problem:
Imagine that you have decided to see a play where admission is
$20 a ticket. As you enter the theater you discover that you have
lost a $20 bill. Would you still pay $20 for a ticket to the play?
(Kahneman & Tversky, 1984, p. 347)
Almost 90% of people asked this question said yes. In
contrast,
Imagine that you have decided to see a play and paid the admis-
sion price of $20 a ticket. As you enter the theater you discover
that you have lost the ticket. The seat was not marked and the
ticket can not be recovered. Would you pay $20 for another
ticket? (Kahneman & Tversky, 1984, p. 347).
Now, less than 50% of people said yes. What is the differ-
ence between the two cases? From one perspective, they
seem the same; both involve seeing a play and being $40
poorer or not seeing it and being $20 poorer. Yet people
don't seem to see them as the same. What Kahneman and
Tversky have suggested is that the difference between the
two cases has to do with the way in which people .frame
their psychological accounts. Suppose that in a person's
internal accounting system there is a cost-of-the-theater
account. In the first case, the cost of the theater is $20; the
lost $20 bill is not properly charged to that account. How-
ever, in the second case, the cost of the theater is $40 (two
tickets), and for many people, $40 is too much to pay. On
the other hand, suppose that the person's internal account-
ing system has a cost-of-a-day's-outing account. Now the
two cases may well be equivalent in that the lost ticket and
the lost $20 both add the same amount to the cost of the
day. So some people keep narrow cost-of-the-theater ac-
counts, whereas others keep broader cost-of-the-day ac-
counts. Which of them is rational? What is the way in
which rational decision makers should keep their accounts?
The range of possible accounting systems people
could use is enormous. For example, a journey to the
theater could be just one entry in a much larger account--
say a getting-culture account, or a things-to-do-on-a-Fri-
day-night account, or even a meeting-a-potential-spouse
account--and how much this night at the theater is "worth"
will depend on what account it is a part of. Forty dollars
may be a lot to spend for getting culture, compared with
awfilable alternatives, but not much to spend to find a
spouse. The flexibility of the accounting systems people
can use raises an important question. If there are no norms
or standards of rationality to judge accounting systems by,
and if the number of possible accounting systems really is
indefinitely large, what is it that determines which account-
ing systems people actually use?
In approaching this question, a look at the practices of
professional accountants can be instructive. Professional
accountants can also organize accounts in indefinitely
many ways. What constrains the way they operate? There
are three sources of constraints. One source is the legal
system. There are tax and business regulations that impose
a set of requirements on how the books must be kept. A
second source is professional standards. The accounting
profession establishes certain standards that guide how
accounting is to be done. It maintains those standards in
part by educating new accountants to do things in just that
way. The final source is custom or habit. Accountants keep
accounts in certain ways because they have always kept
them in those ways or because the accountants who pre-
ceded them kept them in those ways. There is nothing
especially privileged or rational about these constraints.
Legal requirements could be different, as could profes-
sional standards, and habits are accidents of history. Yet,
the constraints are there, and they serve to narrow and
shape the way accountants do their work.
Precisely the same things could be said about the ways
people keep their psychological accounts. They are influ-
enced by legal and social sanctions, by customs and tradi-
tions, and by old habits. These influences may also be
unprivileged and unjustified. Nevertheless, people inherit
them and their effects on the keeping of accounts. People
don't include their income taxes or the cost of supporting
their children in their charitable-giving account, though
they could. They don't treat school taxes as child-care
expenses. They don't treat the money they give to houses
of worship as entertainment costs. People may have good
reasons for not doing these things, but they are not reasons
that can be understood from within the perspective of the
theory of rational choice. These reasons stem from the
influence of culture on what categories people establish and
what items they put in each category. Psychological ac-
counting practices in different cultures are quite different
from ours, but they are no more or less reasonable.
January 2000 American Psychologist 83
An attempt to extend self-determination to everything
would break down the habitual accounting practices people
use. On the basis of the argument I have been sketching,
this may make rational decision making impossible. The
significant psychological consequence of this development
could be that all the choices people make leave them with
the dissatisfied feeling that they might have done better.
Rational Choice and Cultural
Constraint
The plausibility of the theory of rational choice depends on
the existence of markets and of money as a medium of
exchange. This is what makes sensible the notion of human
beings as perpetual choosers, with all options open and all
possibilities comparable. To the extent that things can be
priced (and the market is just the mechanism for the pricing
of all things), they can be compared with one another, or so
the theory of rational choice assumes.
However, not all social activity, or even all economic
activity, is organized around markets and exchange. Imag-
ine a small farmer living prior to the industrial revolution,
say 300 years ago. For the most part, this farmer's activity
would not have involved exchange in the market because
there were few markets, and what markets there were rarely
reached very far afield given the limits on available trans-
port at the time. The farmer might have been engaged in
raising crops, keeping chickens for eggs and cows for milk,
doing occasional hunting and fishing, skinning animals for
clothes, spinning wool, keeping the farm buildings and
machinery in repair, caring for the plow horses, and so on.
Not an item of exchange in the lot.
It might be tempting to argue that the preindustrial
farmer
was
engaged in exchange. The farmer was exchang-
ing labor time for goods instead of money, but it was a
process of exchange nonetheless, no different in principle
from the activity of the modern white collar worker. How-
ever, if we try to take this argument seriously and apply
rational-choice concepts to the activity of the farmer, most
of them don't make much sense. The amount of time that
the farmer spent at various tasks cannot be treated as a
measure of the value of their products to the farmer. Farm-
ing may take 10 times as much effort as hunting. From this,
it does not follow that the farmer's crops were 10 times as
valuable as meat. The farmer needed them both, and the
time spent at these activities was dictated by the demands
of the activities themselves and not by any calculation of
value. The framework of rational choice is just the wrong
framework for understanding what the farmer did. Cer-
tainly, there could have been better and worse farmers,
rational and irrational ones, but rational farmers and ratio-
nal choosers are not just two sides of the same coin.
What largely eliminated many of the constraints on
economic activity that characterized the preindustrial
farmer was the industrial revolution that began in the 17th
century (see Hobsbawm, 1964; Polanyi, 1944; Schwartz,
Schuldenfrei, & Lacey, 1978). The industrial revolution
took people away from the home and sent them into the
factory (Marglin, 1976), making it difficult to engage in
subsistence farming and production for exchange (wages)
at the same time. Therefore, the notion that economic
activity is exchange and the development of markets in
which practically anything can be exchanged are very
much products of the industrial revolution. This makes the
rational chooser, as described by rational-choice theorists,
a person who exists under only a rather restricted set of
conditions that have been true only in the recent history of
our species and then in only certain parts of the world.
Thus, the market system is not made possible by
rational choosers; rather, it makes rational choosers possi-
ble. The implications of this line of argument for an ac-
count of human self-determination are significant. In the
eyes of rational-choice theorists, principles of rational
choice are not mere descriptions of particular points in
history. They are laws of human nature, fundamental
truths--both empirical and normative--about the human
condition. One way of thinking about laws in general is as
constraints on human activities. The law of gravitation is
one such constraint; it keeps people from flying about
uncontrollably. The law that prohibits going through red
lights is another such constraint; it keeps people from
driving their cars in whatever way they like. But these two
kinds of laws are obviously very different. The constraint
imposed by gravity is not human made, not self-imposed,
and it cannot be repealed no matter how much people want
to repeal it. The constraint on going through red lights, in
contrast, is self-imposed and easily repealed.
Which of these kinds of constraints are described by
the laws of rational choice? What l am suggesting is that
the laws of rational choice are like traffic laws, not like
gravity. We are almost certainly at
the
point in the history
of our species (thus far) where rational choice with minimal
constraints is most applicable to the human condition.
However, this abundance of choice and explosion of mar-
kets-this liberation of the individual from traditional con-
straints--is experienced by only a minority of human be-
ings. For most people in the world, individual choice is
neither expected nor sought in many domains of activity
(McCauley, et al., 1999; Shweder, Much, Mahapatra, &
Park, 1997). The critical point here is that one has to be
mindful of culture-specific constraints and opportunities in
considering the operation of any particular model of choice
(see Fiske, 1991).
The constraints of culture affect not only what the
preference hierarchy of individuals will be, but even how
the individual--the self--is constituted. Markus and
Kitayama (1991) have surveyed evidence indicating that
the boundaries that separate the self from others are very
much culture dependent. In cultures like that of the United
States, the self is construed as an
independent
entity. The
boundaries between the self and others are clear and dis-
tinct. Independence, autonomy, and self-determination are
prized, and the values and preferences of each individual
are given a status that is independent of the values and
preferences of others. It is to explain the choices of a self
like this that the theory of rational choice was constructed.
However, in other cultures, even industrial cultures like
Japan, the self is construed as an
interdependent
entity.
Significant others form a part of the self, and their values
84 January 2000 American Psychologist
and preferences are, in significant respects, one's own. In
cultures like this, many of the conflicts Americans rou-
tinely face between doing the right thing and doing the
self-interested thing evaporate. No doubt they are replaced
by different conflicts, but these different conflicts are re-
flections of fundamentally different selves, with fundamen-
tally different notions of preference and choice. Unless we
understand how culture penetrates and defines the self, our
investigation of the nature of human preferences and of
self-determination can hardly be said to have begun. For
many people in the world, the relevant unit for making
decisions and experiencing their results is the family or the
larger social group and not the individual. For people of
these cultures, offering choices to individuals, rather than
dictating them, may be experienced as burdensome rather
than liberating (Iyengar & Lepper, 1999a).
I believe that the dominance of rational-choice theory
in the context of markets as a model for human autonomy
has had a significant effect on Americans' aspirations with
regard to self-determination. It is partly because we fit
everything into a market framework that we expect to have
choice and control in all domains of life (see Schwartz,
1997). The economist might say that this represents the
triumph of industrial capitalism. Modem Americans refuse
to have their behavior governed by tradition, and market-
driven affluence frees most of us from the dictates of
necessity. As a result, everything is a matter of choice. This
is the best of all possible worlds. Or is it?
Tyranny of Freedom: The Evidence
What I have done thus far is try to provide a plausibility
argument that choice is constrained in the way that lan-
guage is constrained, and that too much freedom from
constraint is a bad thing. I want now to turn to some
empirical evidence that I think supports this view. I begin
with a discussion of depression.
The theory of learned helplessness has taught us about
the importance of control and autonomy to mental health
(e.g., Abramson, Metalsky, & Alloy, 1989; Abramson,
Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978; Maier & Seligman, 1976;
Peterson, Maier, & Seligman, 1993; Peterson & Seligman,
1984; Seligman, 1975). In particular, helplessness has
taught us that a lack of control, coupled with a certain
characteristic style of causal explanation, creates candi-
dates for clinical depression. Given that having control
over significant things in one's life is important to prevent-
ing clinical depression, we can ask ourselves what we
might expect the incidence of depression to be like in
modem American society.
As I argued above, most of us now live in a world in
which we experience control to a degree that people living
in other times and places would think quite unimaginable.
Extraordinary material wealth enables us to consume an
astonishing quantity and variety of goods, and the magical
mechanism of the market allows us an almost limitless
array of choices. Further, this autonomy and control extend
beyond the world of material goods. In careers, there is an
enormous degree of mobility, both in career type and in
geographical location. People are not constrained to do the
work their parents did in the place where their parents did
it, nor are people constrained to have only a single occu-
pation for their entire working lives. Therefore, almost
anything is possible. In personal life, religious, ethnic,
racial, class, geographic, and even gender barriers to mate
selection are rapidly disappearing. Moreover, one is free to
choose whether to have kids or not, whether to have them
early or late, whether to bear them or adopt them, whether
to have them as part of a traditional marriage and family or
as part of any of a host of nontraditional family arrange-
ments. It is also increasingly easy to get out of marriages
that have turned sour and, having done that, to arrange
child custody in ways that suit the involved parties.
In summary, I think it is only a slight exaggeration to
say that for the first time in human history, in the contem-
porary United States large numbers of people can live
exactly the kind of lives they want, unconstrained by ma-
terial, economic, or cultural limitations. This fact coupled
with the helplessness theory of depression might lead one
to expect clinical depression in the United States to be
going the way of polio.
Instead, what we find is an explosive growth in the
number of people with depression(e.g., Klerman et al.,
1985; Robins et al., 1984). Some estimates are that depres-
sion is 10 times more likely to afflict someone now than at
the turn of the century. Thus, we have a puzzle. The
solution to this puzzle lies, I think, in several features of
modem life that are the focus of this article.
First, I think that increases in experienced control over
the years have been accompanied, stride-for-stride, by in-
creases in expectations about control. The more we are
allowed to be the masters of our fates in one domain of life
after another, the more we expect to be. Education is
expected to be stimulating and useful. Work is supposed to
be exciting, socially valuable, and remunerative. Spouses
are supposed to be sexually, emotionally, and intellectually
stimulating and also loyal and comforting. Friends are
supposed to be fun to be with and devoted. Children are
supposed to be beautiful, smart, affectionate, obedient, and
independent. Everything we buy is supposed to be the best
of its kind. With all the choice available, people should
never have to settle for things that are just good enough. In
short, life is supposed to be perfect. Excessive emphasis on
self-determination has, I believe, contributed to these un-
realistic expectations.
Second, American culture has become more individ-
ualistic than it ever was before. What this means, I think, is
that not only do people expect perfection in all things, but
they expect to produce this perfection themselves. When
they (inevitably) fail, I believe that the culture of individ-
ualism biases them toward making causal attributions that
focus on internal rather than external causal factors. That is,
I believe that the culture has established a kind of officially
acceptable style of causal explanation, and it is one that
focuses on the individual. As Seligman's research (e.g.,
Peterson & Seligman, 1984) has led the way in demon-
strating, this kind of causal attribution is just the kind to
promote depression when people are faced with failure, and
if my first point is correct, despite their increased control,
January 2000 American Psychologist 85
people will inevitably be faced with many occasions that by
their own lights count as failure.
Finally, the emphasis on individual autonomy and
control may be undermining a crucial vaccine against de-
pression: deep commitment and belonging to social groups
and institutions--families, civic associations, faith commu-
nities, and the like. There is an inherent tension between
being one' s own person, or determining one' s own self, and
meaningful involvement in social groups. Doing the latter
properly requires submerging one's self. Therefore, the
more people focus on themselves--with respect both to
goals and to the means of achieving those goals--the more
their connections to others will be weakened. Robert Put-
nam (e.g., 1993, 1995, 1996) has recently attracted a great
deal of attention to this deterioration of social connection in
modem America, and in this context it is relevant to note a
study by Egeland and Hostetter (1983) that showed an
incidence of depression among the Amish of Lancaster
County, Pennsylvania, that was about half the national rate,
whereas other forms of psychopathology were much closer
to national averages. The Amish, of course, are an ex-
tremely cohesive, tightly knit, traditional community.
Thus, the current literature on helplessness, control,
and depression suggests that freedom of choice is not all
it's cracked up to be, at least not with respect to psycho-
logical well-being. I think it is possible that a similar story
can be told about body weight and diet. Despite the com-
pelling evidence (summarized in Seligman, 1994) that peo-
ple can do rather little about their body weight, the culture
tells us that obesity is a matter of choice, personal control,
and personal responsibility. It tells us that we should aspire
to look perfect, and that if we don't, we have only ourselves
to blame. How much of the modern epidemic of eating
disorder stems from this particular mythology I do not
know, but surely there would be less eating pathology if
people understood the shapes of their bodies to be con-
straints rather than choices.
Consistent with the evidence that choice is not an
unmixed blessing, results have begun to appear in the
literature on human decision making to indicate that adding
options for people can make the choice situation less rather
than more attractive--that indeed, sometimes people prefer
it if others make the choices for them (Beattie, Baron,
Hershey, & Spranca, 1994).
In one series of studies (Iyengar & Lepper, 1999b)
participants were more likely to purchase exotic jams or
gourmet chocolates when they had 6 options from which to
choose than when they had 30 options. In addition, those
with fewer options expressed greater satisfaction with the
choices they actually made. Further, college students were
more likely to write an extra-credit essay and wrote better
essays when they had 6 topics from which to choose than
when they had 30 options. The authors suggested several
possible factors that may underlie this effect. One is the
avoidance of potential regret. The more options there are,
the more likely it is one will make a nonoptimal choice, and
this prospect undermines whatever pleasure one may get
from one's actual choice. There is ample evidence that
regret avoidance is a potent force in human decision mak-
ing--perhaps even more potent than the loss avoidance that
has been a significant feature of Kahneman and Tversky's
(e.g., 1979) theory of decision making (Beattie et al., 1994;
Bell, 1982, 1985; Loomis & Sugden, 1982; Simenson,
1992; Zeelenberg, Beattie, van der Pligt, & de Vries, 1996).
This regret avoidance may be especially potent in people
with low self-esteem (Josephs, Larrick, Steele, & Nisbett,
1992). For such people, every choice opportunity presents
the possibility that they will gather more evidence than they
already have that they do not know how to make good
decisions.
A second factor that may make increased choice op-
tions unattractive is that they create a seemingly intractable
information problem. It is hard enough to gather the infor-
mation and go through the deliberations needed to make the
best choice among six options. To choose the best among
30 options is truly daunting. Therefore, rather than even
try, people may disengage, choosing almost arbitrarily to
get the process over with. As a result of this disengage-
ment, many of the psychological processes that normally
are recruited to enhance the attractiveness of the choices
one makes may not be used (see Gilovich & Medvec, 1995,
for an account of some of these processes in the context of
a theory of regret).
It should be noted that from the perspective of the
norms of rational-choice theory, the demotivating effects of
added options are truly paradoxical. If one already has a
choice between Options A and B, how can adding Option
C make one worse off? One can, after all, always ignore
Option C and choose between A and B. Yet this demoti-
vating effect is precisely what seems to occur, at least
under some circumstances (see Redelmeier & Shafir,
1995). And the commercial world seems already to know
what experimental psychologists are just now discovering.
Several major manufacturers of a variety of consumer
products have been streamlining the number of options
they provide customers, in response to a modest consumer
rebellion against excessive choice. Proctor and Gamble, for
example, reduced the number of versions of its very pop-
ular Head and Shoulders shampoo from a staggering 26 to
"only" 15, and they experienced a 10% increase in sales
(Osnos, 1997).
Conclusion
This article has suggested two things. First, although we
could live in a world in which everything was a matter of
choice, we don't have to, and most people in the history of
human society haven't. Second, were we to live in such a
world, our mechanisms of rational choice would be over-
whelmed rather than empowered. As I indicated at the
outset, there is a degree of freedom that now exists in many
of the most important domains of our lives that only a short
time ago would have been unimaginable. Certainly, there
are still strong vestiges of traditional constraint that remain
in all of these domains, so that many freedoms that exist for
everyone in theory can't be realized by everyone in prac-
tice, but there is no question of the direction in which
things are moving. Every day it gets a little bit easier for
86 January 2000 American Psychologist
individuals to do exactly what they want to do and to live
exactly as they want to live.
Obviously, all of this freedom from traditional con-
straint is cause for celebration, particularly for those for
whom traditional constraint was experienced as painful and
oppressive. Largely because traditions are authoritarian and
inflexible, modern Americans have fled from traditional
institutions and values. Americans have chafed at being
told what to do, at being told what was good for them.
Traditions did not merely
offer
order and structure to peo-
ple's lives; they
insisted
on it. To this inflexible insistence
many Americans have said good riddance. It is much better
to make up the rules of the games you play as you go along
than to be forced to play those games by other people's
rules--rules that don't seem to serve you and make no
sense to you.
I have tried to suggest, however, that there is a dark
side to all this freedom from constraint, to all this emphasis
on individuals as the makers of their own worlds, their own
destinies. It leaves people indecisive about what to do and
why. Freedom of choice is a two-edged sword, for just on
the other side of liberation sits chaos and paralysis. Thus,
there is a price for freedom--danger. There is a price for
enlightenment--uncertainty. There is a price for being able
to change the rules of softball. You may not know what the
new rules should be, and playing by new rules may damage
what was good when you played by the old ones. Thus, in
aspiring as a culture to offer individuals self-determination
without constraint, we are not doing those individuals a
favor.
What has all this to do with the future development of
a positive psychology that will nurture strength rather than
repair damage? Until now, psychology has been a signifi-
cant contributor to the ethic of individual self-determina-
tion. The task before psychology now, I believe, is to pull
back from this stance--but not indiscriminately. Rather,
what psychology must do is figure out the "grammar" of
human life choices--the set of constraints that actually
enables freedom rather than impeding it.
When the great biologist Jacob yon Uexkull said that
"security is more important than wealth" (1938/1954, p.
26), more than half a century ago, what he was talking
about was how evolution seemed to shape organisms so
that their sensory systems were exquisitely attuned to just
those environmental inputs that were critical to their sur-
vival. The forest is a much less interesting place to a
squirrel than it is to a human being. Much that goes on in
that forest goes right by the squirrel. Its sensory experience
is thus impoverished relative to ours, but it notices what it
needs to notice. Biology seems to supply the needed con-
straints on choice for most organisms. For people, those
constraints have to come from culture. The task for a fu-
ture psychology is to figure out what those constraints
should be.
A final comment is necessary on the use of the word
should
in the previous sentence.
Shoulds
imply claims that
are prescriptive rather than descriptive, and psychology, as
a positive rather than a normative social science, has tried
to steer away from
shoulds.
I believe that if psychologists
are serious about turning psychology's power to develop-
ing a theory of optimal functioning, they can no longer
avoid
shoulds.
I think that a richly developed positive
psychology must do more than teach people
how
to do
things--it must to do more than teach people effective
techniques for getting what they want out of life. It must
also tell them something about
what
they should be trying
to get. That is, it must be informed by a vision of what a
good human life contains. Thus, a positive psychology will
have to be willing to tell people that, say, a good, mean-
ingful, productive human life includes commitment to ed-
ucation, commitment to family and to other social groups,
commitment to excellence in one's activities, commitment
to virtues such as honesty, loyalty, courage, and justice in
one's dealings with others, and so on. Notice how the very
notion that psychology might articulate a vision of the good
life contradicts the emphasis on freedom, autonomy, and
choice that are the subject of this article.
The: official ideology of modern America poses an
enormous barrier to this kind of contentful positive psy-
chology. The ideology of America is the ideology of liberal
individualism--let people decide for themselves what is
good. Modern liberal culture is extremely reluctant to tell
people what to do, and social science has internalized that
credo: Don't be judgmental; help people get what they
want, but don't tell them what they should be wanting.
It is one thing to encounter people in extreme psycho-
logical pain and to tell them, , gently, how to change the
content of their lives to relieve that pain. Few people will
object to psychologists who impose their values in this way
to relieve suffering, but a positive psychology is a whole
other story. A positive psychology will be indiscriminate in
imposing its values; it will put its values in the community
water supply, like fluoride. Is psychology prepared to be a
science that promotes certain values instead of one that
encourages self-actualization? If it is, will modern, liberal
society stand for it?
To summarize this final point, once clinical psychol-
ogists had
patients.
Over the years, the discipline grew
concerned that
patient
implied illness, which in turn im-
plied a conception of health, a conception of the goal of
therapy that the field did not really have. Thus,
patients
became
clients.
Doctors have patients. The patients come in
sick, and the doctors make them well. Restoring and main-
taining physical health and alleviating suffering are the
goals of medicine. Lawyers, in contrast, have clients. Law-
yers don't have goals for clients the way doctors have goals
for patients. Rather, lawyers are there to help the clients
achieve their own goals. Clients define their goals in a way
that patients do not. Therefore, in moving from
patients
to
clients,
psychology moved from having the practitioner
define the goal to having the recipient define the goal. What
will psychologists call the recipients of their services if and
when a positive psychology comes to fruition? I don't think
that either
patients
or
clients
does justice to the grand
vision that informs these beginnings of a positive psychol-
ogy. The right term, I think, is
students.
Are psychologists
prepared to argue that it is future generations of psychol-
ogists who should be society's teachers? I think that unless
January 2000 American Psychologist 87
we are prepared to say yes to this question and to develop
arguments about the content of a good human life, the
potential achievements of a future positive psychology will
always be limited. I also believe that the time to be thinking
and talking about this very big and difficult issue is now, at
the beginning, and not later, in the face of angry critics
trying to put psychologists in their place.
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... In general, consumers express a robust desire for assortment or variety in their choices (Kahn 1995). While having too many options can make consumers suffer (Schwartz 2004;Iyengar, Wells, and Schwartz 2006), experience the choice task as a cognitively aggravating one (Jacoby, Speller, and Kohn 1974;Scammon 1977;Shugan 1980;Malhotra 1982;Hauser and Wernerfelt 1990;Huffman and Kahn 1998;Iyengar and Lepper 2000), delay making decisions (Greenleaf and Lehmann 1995), prefer a no-choice option (Dhar 1995), simply opt not to choose (Ybarra, Lee, and Gonzalez 2012), be less confident about their choices (Iyengar and Lepper 2000;Chernev 2003;Schwartz 2004;Iyengar et al. 2006), or even regret having made them (Tsiros and Mittal 2000;Inman and Zeelenberg 2002), consumers nonetheless tend to value the perception of freedom that is associated with choice options. ...
... In general, consumers express a robust desire for assortment or variety in their choices (Kahn 1995). While having too many options can make consumers suffer (Schwartz 2004;Iyengar, Wells, and Schwartz 2006), experience the choice task as a cognitively aggravating one (Jacoby, Speller, and Kohn 1974;Scammon 1977;Shugan 1980;Malhotra 1982;Hauser and Wernerfelt 1990;Huffman and Kahn 1998;Iyengar and Lepper 2000), delay making decisions (Greenleaf and Lehmann 1995), prefer a no-choice option (Dhar 1995), simply opt not to choose (Ybarra, Lee, and Gonzalez 2012), be less confident about their choices (Iyengar and Lepper 2000;Chernev 2003;Schwartz 2004;Iyengar et al. 2006), or even regret having made them (Tsiros and Mittal 2000;Inman and Zeelenberg 2002), consumers nonetheless tend to value the perception of freedom that is associated with choice options. ...
... Offering consumers choice options affords them decisional flexibility and freedom (McAlister 1982;Kahneman and Snell 1990;Simonson 1990) and may increase the psychological well-being of individuals (Schwartz 2000). Consumers prefer to have many options and much variety when choosing (e.g., Kahn 1995;Iyengar and Lepper 2000). ...
... Bunların ilki toplumsal sorumluluk, ikincisi ise karĢılıklılık normudur. Toplumsal sorumluluk, bireylerin gelecekte alacak vereceklerini düĢünmeden ihtiyaç sahiplerine yardım edilmesi gerektiği düĢüncesidir (Schwartz, 2000). Ancak bu norm kültürleri farklı olan ülkelere ve durumlara göre farklılık gösterebilir. ...
... Our work is particularly relevant as today's consumers increasingly encounter contexts which may prompt them to seek the best for themselves. They face a marketplace that offers endless information and innumerable possibilities for many purchases, fostering an expectation that the best can and should be attained (Schwartz 2000); a media that is saturated with reality shows dedicated to seeking out and anointing people who are the best at what they do, be they singers, chefs, or designers; and a ubiquity of social media sites, which inherently create silos of comparison among individuals and a desire to have and be better (Vogel et al. 2014). Given this emergent trend in consumer culture, it is important to understand the implications of consumers' pursuit of the best, for both marketplace outcomes and consumer wellbeing. ...
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