I'm Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania, specializing in decision-making and motivation. My new book, Why We Work, has just been published. It answers the simple question: what motivates us to work? In 2004, I published The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. I have published articles about wisdom, decision-making and motivation in sources as diverse as The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Scientific American, and the Harvard Business Review. I have appeared on dozens of radio shows, including NPR’s Morning Edition, and Talk of the Nation, and have been interviewed on the Lehrer News Hour (PBS), The Colbert Report, and CBS Sunday Morning. I have also written Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing, with colleague Ken Sharpe. I spoke about the paradox of choice at TED in 2005 (a talk viewed by more than 8 million people), and about practical wisdom at TED in 2009 (viewed by more than 2 million). Ask me anything.

Thanks for your great questions! Take a look at my new book and my TED videos for more information!

My Proof: https://www.facebook.com/barry.schwartz.1272/posts/10156051794780252?pnref=story

Comments: 62 • Responses: 15  • Date: 

johnnynoname125 karma

I work as a waiter and when customers are torn between two items I always ask them one thing:

1) "If you had one of those items already in mind before you came here then you should go with that it"

how is this right? how is it wrong?

BarrySch14 karma

I think the critical additional thing for you to do is to bolster their confidence in the decision they came in with. When we feel good about a decision, we usually then interpret the resulting experience positively.

Albert32324 karma

any advice on how to overcome social anxiety?

BarrySch13 karma

Sorry, no. That's not my area of expertise.

Frajer4 karma

What makes people unmotivated?

BarrySch23 karma

Lots of things, but I'd focus on lack of respect from supervisors, lack of a sense that the work makes someone else's life better, lack of autonomy and discretion

Seanbookwormconnery4 karma


BarrySch3 karma

Thanks for writing. I'm sorry to hear about your struggles. My guess (only a guess) is that if you set extremely modest incremental goals (eg, 30 seconds more today than yesterday), you may be able to push yourself to do the work. That said, I have no idea whether for someone in your condition, more is always better than less, which your doctor seems to be suggesting

BarrySch2 karma

Another thought: there may well be trainers who specialize in this sort of thing who may be able to give you a more moderate exercise program. There may also be an online community of people in roughly your condition who can provide useful tips based on their own experience

eyesock3 karma

What do you think about someone listening to music while working? Recently, my employer has been cracking down on workers listening to music while at work. I have always been engaged with my work, and felt the sound of music drowned out the multitude of other noisy machines.

BarrySch7 karma

My view is that this is foolish regimentation on the part of your employer. Some people are quite distracted by things like music. Others are helped to zone in. If employers assume that employyes are trying to do a good job, they'll give the employees discretion in how they do that job.

yosemighty_sam1 karma

And here I am feeling the opposite, employer let's the crew blast loud music all day and I find it incredibly distracting with no escape.

BarrySch6 karma

This is what my gym is like, and it seems worse than pointless, since everyone who wants music brings their own

orefb3 karma

Professor: You and Sheena Iyengar really started the conversation around "less is more." But obviously ideas around decision theory have evolved to acknowledge that it's a little more complicated than that. At the same time, companies are becoming more and more obsessed with the idea of reducing decisions in everything from entertainment to e-commerce.

So, I have a multi-part question:

[1] Are there any currently-progressing studies in which you're particularly interested in the outcome? Any writers/thinkers you're paying attention to when it comes to decision theory?

[2] Any thoughts on what Big Data means for decision theory?

[3] What do you think we're all getting wrong about "reducing" decisions?

BarrySch5 karma

Good question. 'Less-is-more' IS complicated. There are certainly boundary conditions as well as individual differences. That said, I have little doubt that the phenomenon is real. I'm not such a big fan of 'big' data. You need to be asking the right questions of it. It won't just provide important information unaided by smart interrogators. And I think that given the culture's bias that more choice is always better than less, the push to reduce choice and simplify decisions is a good one, even if it is sometimes carried too far.

orefb1 karma

Do you have an example, based on where the research is today, of when less is more and when it's carried too far?

BarrySch2 karma

Actually I don't, ecept for a couple of lab studies that showed that when you reduce options too much (eg., 3 or 4 pens to choose from instead of 10 or more), choice is reduced. There seems to be a "sweet spot" that, in the studies that have been published, is between 8-10 options.

starrcourt1 karma

Also, do you have an example of big data being used inappropriately?

BarrySch2 karma

Not off the top of my head.

BarrySch2 karma

I have to go everyone. Thanks for your interest. Barry

jcfct2 karma

What do you think of the annual employee review system that corporate America seems to love?

BarrySch9 karma

I think that reviews/feedback are a good thing but the point should be to help employees get better at what they do. When you tie reviews to compensation, you create an unhelpful "game the system" dynamic.

starrcourt2 karma

How do motivations to work differ most between varying countries?

BarrySch3 karma

I don't know a lot about this interesting question except that there are differences between so-called "individualist" countries (the west) and "collectivist" countries 9eeg., east Asia). Collectivist countries have people who are mostly focused on the team.

kaythetall2 karma

Are you familiar with James Carse's 'Finite and Infinite Games"?

Finite games are discrete activities like board games or races. Infinite games are open-ended, like conversations or evolution.

I find that it's a good complement to the principles of sufficiency and mastery.

People can approach board games with 'gimme the gist of it' or 'I will defeat you at any cost'. Just like conversations can be about the weather or the purpose of existence.

Understanding which approach people are taking to either 'game' hugely informs how to interact with them; their needs and desired outcome.

So my question: are you familiar with his work? Am I crazy to think that it complements your own?

BarrySch4 karma

I know the distinction you're making but I've never read on this topic. It is perhaps critical to point out that the open-endedness applies not just to the "moves" in the game, but to the goals.

dds391 karma

What would be the best way to get rid of irrationality or randomness in decision-making that everyone suffers (I hope) in a varying degree?

BarrySch4 karma

One thing to do is to slow down and think through your process. Don't just go with your gut. A second is to involve other people, who may see things different;y than you do, in the decision