The paradox of providing choices in learning may mean that by providing more choice for learners in your organisation you are actually paralysing them from making a decision and engaging in the learning that would improve their performance. I had the pleasure this week of listening to Prof Barry Schwartz at the Oran Mor centre in Glasgow talk about the 'Paradox of Choice and Practical Wisdom'. Schwatrz studies the link between economics and psychology, offering startling insights into modern life. Lately, working with Ken Sharpe, he's studying wisdom. His recent TED talks offer a good overview of his thoughts on choice.

Barry Schwartz

Barry Schwartz

Schwartz starts from our belief in the West that "more freedom means more well-being" and "more choice means more freedom". Therefore "more choice means more well-being" Choice is a good thing and only a good thing. Schwartz isn't against choice, but points out we have accepted the dogma of more choice being always good without realising that there is a negative effect. In modern affluent societies, we have more choice than ever before and Schwartz says that we have to realise that "more choice is not only good, but there are three bad things that come with it":

  1. Paralysis from too much choice. Even when it is clearly in our interest to make a choice we will delay the decision if it is not simple and clear.
  2. We feel less satisfied, because we feel in making the choice we have made a mistake or had to give something else up. So there is often regret in the choice, because I didn't do something else or anticipated regret at the opportunity cost in making the decision.
  3. Lastly, with all the choice available there is an escalation of our expectations and we expect perfection and when it doesn't quite work out we think that somehow it is our fault, "if only we'd made a better choice".

All this leads to a situation where there is a decline in the value of choice beyond a particular point as shown in this graph:

Reactions to increased choice

Reactions to increased choice

The lessons for learning are interesting as there often appears to be a belief nowadays that we need to present the learner with a choice of learning routes and methods to support them. I look at LMS systems and learning portals with a buffet selection of resources to help with say project management or communication and I wonder how would I make a choice. Schwartz's work would indicate that by providing this selection we are actually getting in the way of improving learning and performance and as learning professionals we need to use our critical judgement to select a smaller number of resources and clearly signpost them so that the learner can make a quick and simple selections when they are seeking support. I suspect there are also lessons in online user interface design as well as in the range of resources we offer. As is so often the case with communication 'less may well mean more' to the learner. The second part of Schwartz's presentation on 'Practical Wisdom' focused on moral skill and moral will and how we cannot teach things like ethics, they need to be learnt through practice and observation of behavious and culture. He believes the curent drive for more rules is actually waging a war on our ability to acquire wisdom, but that will need to be for another day. For now I think the biggest learning for me is that providing more choice may paralysis people from actually making a choice, because it just seems too difficult.