Barry Schwartz on “Our loss of wisdom”

Schwartz

“A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule. A wise person knows how to improvise. Real-world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined and the context is always changing. A wise person is like a jazz musician — using the notes on the page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand.”

In his TED Talk, Barry Schwartz makes a passionate call for “practical wisdom” as an antidote to a society gone mad with bureaucracy. He argues powerfully that rules often fail us, incentives often backfire, and practical, everyday wisdom will help rebuild our world.

Schwartz studies the link between economics and psychology, offering startling insights into modern life. Lately, working with Ken Sharpe, he’s studying wisdom. He is the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action in the psychology department at Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where he has taught for thirty years. He is the author of several leading textbooks on the psychology of learning and memory, as well as a penetrating look at contemporary life, The Battle for Human Nature: Science, Morality, and Modern Life. Schwartz is married and has two children.

In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Schwartz tackles one of the great mysteries of modern life: Why is it that societies of great abundance — where individuals are offered more freedom and choice (personal, professional, material) than ever before — are now witnessing a near-epidemic of depression?

Conventional wisdom tells us that greater choice is for the greater good, but Schwartz argues the opposite: He makes a compelling case that the abundance of choice in today’s western world is actually making us miserable.

Infinite choice is paralyzing, Schwartz argues, and exhausting to the human psyche. It leads us to set unreasonably high expectations, question our choices before we even make them and blame our failures entirely on ourselves. His relatable examples, from consumer products (jeans, TVs, salad dressings) to lifestyle choices (where to live, what job to take, who and when to marry), underscore this central point: Too much choice undermines happiness.

Schwartz’s previous research has addressed morality, decision-making and the varied inter-relationships between science and society. Before Paradox he published The Costs of Living: How Market Freedom Erodes the Best Things in Life, which traces the impact of free-market thinking on the explosion of consumerism — and the effect of the new capitalism on social and cultural institutions that once operated above the market, such as medicine, sports, and the law.

Both books level serious criticism of modern western society, illuminating the under-reported psychological plagues of our time. But they also offer concrete ideas on addressing the problems, from a personal and societal level.

Here is a direct link to Barry’s TED Talk.

To learn more about TED, please click here.

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