Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Psychology professor Barry Schwartz speaks with the Daily Gazette Opinions Editor Jon Emont about being a guest on the Colbert Report, his 2004 book “The Paradox of Choice,” and why his grandchildren now think he’s a rock star.
Daily Gazette: So, first off, how do you think the interview went?
Barry Schwartz: I was thrilled. I don’t know if you’re a regular watcher, but it’s hard to get ten seconds worth of something out before he interrupts, and I just kept waiting for him to interrupt me and he just kept letting me talk. So I actually feel I was able to get my story out pretty well.
DG: I thought the same. You were one of the few people I’ve seen go on there who were actually able to speak straight for four minutes.
BS: It was amazing! It went so fast it was almost disappointing; I was having such a good time. I don’t know what it was- whether he kind of makes an on the spot decision about whether the interviewee is “dead” and needs to be enlivened or can be left to speak or what- but I guess he decided that I was engaging enough. Or maybe he was just interested.
DG: One thing that I thought is interesting is that Colbert pretends, of course, to be some very conservative buffoon and therefore of course would be immediately hostile to your argument [namely, that the proliferation of choices we face on a daily basis makes us less happy)…
BS: That’s what I was expecting…
DG: And I mean, he was a little hostile…
BS: I was expecting much worse.
DG: Do you think that hostility, or faux-hostility, represents what would be a general American hostility to your argument?
BS: Well that’s interesting. The book’s five years old but he seemed to think it was brand new. I didn’t disabuse him of that. When it first came out and these ideas first started to get circulated, I got a lot of that. There was a big sort of libertarian critique that said that freedom is the highest good and if people can’t handle it then too bad for them. You know, that’s not a crazy view. I don’t agree with it, but it’s certainly not a crazy view. The notion that people could be overwhelmed by options was such a foreign idea that at first people were like “What is he talking about?” What has happened is it has become the received wisdom. About six months after my book came out the Times had an editorial that I think was about Medicare Part D, and in the editorial they had a sentence I will never forget that says “As everybody knows, people can have too many choices.” Six months before nobody knew it, six months later everybody knew it. So I don’t encounter any hostility at all any more.
DG: Do you think that your book resonates so much now, because of the recession?
BS: I don’t think so. If anything, what some people, reasonably, criticize me for is that I’m describing the problem of the affluent. Poor people don’t have this problem. If anything the recession has made the kind of thing I worry about in the book a luxury. People are worried about keeping their jobs, paying their rent, and deciding what type of detergent to buy is not on anybody’s screen.
DG: But might the recession force people who can no longer afford to spend as much, to reevaluate the way they live their lives?
BS: In fact I’ve been interviewed a few times by people asking what effect I thought the recession might have on people’s psychology and I said, if it lasts a long time- and I’m not wishing this on anyone- it might force people to reevaluate what’s important, because the things it takes substantial disposable income to do, they can’t do. And if the recession lasts long enough, it will enable people to live much more rewarding lives than the ones they had previously been living.
DG: Does it ever get frustrating as an intellectual who has written an influential book, that the best way to get your message across — to speak to the largest amount of people via television — is to go on a show where the host pretends to be a buffoon?
BS: I’m not the least bit frustrated. I spent 35 years working on things that I thought were really important for society to start thinking about, and having nobody pay attention. With this book all of a sudden people were paying attention. I have no complaints. Now I might have been frustrated if he had been with me the way he had with other guests. But he really let me tell my story, even though it was only about jeans. So I’m just thrilled and delighted. Plus, I’m now a rock-star to my grandchildren. And I got to meet Tom Hanks.
DG: It sounds like a great experience.
BS: It was. It really was. The people were incredible nice, friendly. And he was extremely gracious.
DG: I hear you get a great gift basket. Is that just a rumor?
BS: It was a crappy gift basket. It’s not like being a presenter at the Academy Awards. I got a bottle of tequila, a bottle of cherry vodka, and a whole bunch of stuff I ended up leaving in my hotel room.
DG: I heard that you brought your Honor’s Seminar to the show.
BS: I think they got a real kick out of it though we couldn’t get them on camera.
DG: There was a Times article a little while back about the Colbert “bump.” Apparently, if you want your book sales to increase, going on either John Stewart or Stephen Colbert is better than going on any other show on television.
BS: I got the Colbert bump. I stopped looking at my ranking years ago but I looked at my Amazon ranking this time just because I knew about the Colbert bump. So the book was ranked 3000 before I went on the show, and 300 after.
BS: So who knows how they do their rankings; I could have just sold ten books. I think when you’re that far down on the list it doesn’t take much to bump you up. So I got the bump.
DG: Well, either way, congratulations! It was great speaking with you.
BS: Thanks; it was nice meeting you.