Projects, choice and satisfaction

Patrick Lambe points to an article in the Des Moines Register reporting on research done at the University of Iowa.

The team’s paper, “The Blissful Ignorance Effect,” shows that people who have only a little information about a product are happier with their purchases than people who have more information, the U of I reported. The paper will be published in an issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

“We found that once people commit to buying or consuming something, there’s a kind of wishful thinking that happens and they want to like what they’ve bought,” Nayakankuppam said in a prepared statement. “The less you know about a product, the easier it is to engage in wishful thinking. The more information you have, the harder it is to kid yourself.”

This is not a surprising conclusion to anyone who has read Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice, or seen the video of his presentation at TED in 2005.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz takes aim at a central belief of western societies: that freedom of choice leads to personal happiness. In Schwartz’s estimation, all that choice is making us miserable. We 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, whom and when to marry), underscore this central point: Too many choices undermine happiness.

There is a resonance in this for me. When we do projects, we spend a long time ruminating over a massive range of choices: which supplier should we go with; whose solution fits our needs better; how should we customise the system; how can we meet the (conflicting) expectations of people in the firm; and so on. The issues identified by Schwartz and by the Iowa researchers are magnified when we have to make choices on behalf of the firm. We, making choices, are less likely to be happy that we have done the right thing in the end than if we were choosing a solution just for ourselves. People in the firm, for whom the choice is made, are much more likely to challenge the result than if they had been involved or had been choosing for themselves.

In understanding our psychology better, Schwartz offers us a hope of satisfaction. If we recognise that too many choices undermine our happiness, we may become happier with our selection: we would have been as unhappy with any other choice that we might have made. Likewise, in managing projects, we can be more resolute in the decisions that we make by recognising that any choice will make some people unhappy, and that the least happiness will result from trying to please everyone.

The only challenge after that is to persuade people that the outcome is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds.

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