Essay: The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

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  • Subject area(s): Psychology essays
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  • Published on: January 13, 2020
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  • The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz
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The Paradox of Choice, by psychologist Barry Schwartz, is a TED talk in which Schwartz discusses decision making and the freedom of choice. His main purpose is to argue that having too many choices is not as liberating as it seems and can at times be ‘paralyzing’. The TED talk is in the form of a speech and this essay will examine how Schwartz employs various rhetoric techniques in order to persuade and emphasize the idea that maximizing choice doesn’t increase freedom, while still maintaining the interest of his audience.

The structure of the TED conforms to the conventions of an effective speech. His speech is divided into three sections: an introduction, a main body and a conclusion, which helps him introduce an idea and then provide examples to further his claim. In his introduction, he introduces his main argument and ideas while referencing his book. In doing so, he uses ethos and gives the impression that he is an educated speaker who is aware of his subject matter. His main body is a mix of examples, analogies and anecdotes, through which he reiterates his main argument to his audience. He eventually concludes his speech with a metaphor to stress that too many choices can be a ‘recipe for misery’.

His speech interweaves informal diction, anecdotes and humor in order to make it personal and himself more identifiable to the audience. For example, when he begins the speech, he describes the main topics as ‘some stuff’, thereby, making the tone of the speech less formal and intimidating. The use of collective pronouns like, ‘our citizens’, “our identity’, ‘we are’ etc. help create the impression that the audience are part of the speech and therefore keeps them focused on him. Some speeches employ humor to enliven them and Schwartz makes careful use of it throughout. He uses it after each example in order to bring the audience’s focus back to him and maintain attention. For example, after making the point that people have too many options nowadays in supermarkets, he uses humor and describes his ideal phone as having an “MP3 player, nose hair trimmer, and crème brûlée torch.” The effect of the hyperbole is to convince the audience that the wide variety of choices available to people is ridiculous. The rule of three makes the sentence more rhythmic and therefore more effective in appearing humorous. The intended effect of his use of humor is to make him seem knowledgeable while still being entertaining.

A convention of an effective speech is pauses during which the speaker allows listeners time to understand the message. Schwartz pauses often during the speech as it enables the audience to absorb what has been said. For example, when he introduces marriage and family as an example for how people think they have a choice, he pauses before continuing on. This enables the listener to focus on his next sentence where he makes an important point explain there is no real choice but who to marry. The pause has an effect of indicating an important point. After each short example or anecdote, he pauses for a longer time to indicate the introduction of a new idea. He also pauses after making an important point, so the audience has time to reflect on it and make connections with their own experiences. The pauses make him seem more confident as there are no filler words like, ‘umm’, ‘err’ or ‘you know’ that indicate nervousness or discomfort. Schwartz also uses dramatic pause before a humorous statement to build up the audience’s anticipation and consequently keep their attention. Pausing after using humour is also a cue for the audience to laugh. For example, when he jokes about Randolph Hotel, he waits for the audience to laugh and show engagement before moving on to continue.

Using rhetorical questions is an effective technique that is frequently used in speeches. Throughout the speech, Schwartz asks a series of rhetorical questions like, “What could you do? … , who’s responsible?” etc. The main purpose of these questions is to get the audience to think about the variety of choices available to them and at times the inconvenience it could cause. Sometimes the effect of the rhetorical questions is to draw attention back to some of the examples/ anecdotes referenced in the speech and gets the audience to reflect on them.

Schwartz continues to employ speech conventions that help emphasize the message of his speech that choices are not as satisfying or important as it’s made out to be. He uses repetition when talking freedom of choice. When he says, “The more choice people have, the more freedom they have, and the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have.”, the repetition of the word ‘more’ stresses on how people are led to believe this and therefore, ensuring that the audience doesn’t forget that more is not necessarily good. He also uses assonance, such as when he discusses the “explosion of depression”. The sound creates a cacophonous effect and a negative image, thus convincing the audience that too much choices can cause harm. Scwartz also uses logos and quotes important people, in order to increase credibility. He quotes Dan Gilbert and Steve Levitt to substantiate specific points he makes in the speech. He also claims to base his arguments based on research. For example, when he states an example using a “study that was done of investments in voluntary retirement plans”, he appears trustworthy. He presents logical arguments and appeals to his audience’s emotions. This use of logos and pathos results in the audience viewing him as an articulate and knowledgeable thinker.

The success of his speech is evident by the number of times it has been viewed. It is powerful and his use of a range of effective rhetorical techniques encourages his audience to think beyond what is obvious and the deeper implications of having too many choices. Therefore, making him successfully achieve his purpose.

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