On human choices

The Paradox of Choice; Why more is less, Barry Schwartz.We might have an abundance of options, but the multiplicity conceals within it hidden costs. Rather than liberating us, the banquet of choices available to us has enslaved, tyrannized and paralyzed us. Schwartz seeks to undermine from within the whole idea of the self-interested, utility-maximizing consumer, arguing that the theory of choice ignores the fact that the very act of maximizing desires tend to leave us all worse off. It assumes too much: that we are all-time rational, independent individuals, and capable of making up minds without regrets. Many goods we seek are "positional", e.g. having the best haircult in the class or the nicest view of the lake, all impossible to achieve.

The Era of Choice: The ability to Choose and its Transformation of Contemporary Life, Edward Rosenthal. Less polemical, more eclectic in intellectual influences, but rather flabby and digressing. Edward wants to demonstrate that the ability to choose "has transformed what we are as persons and as a society." Like Schwartz, believes we are not always adept at weighing up risks. We fear getting into an aeroplance while at same time we may be happy to smoke ourselves to death.

The Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle, Cass Sunstein. Salient sources of fear, e.g. of terror. war, pandemic,etc . Citizen consumers suffer from systematic "probability neglect," whereby they ignore the probability of harm and focus on the worst possible outcome, irrespective the likelihood. This is the main problem, at least in today's living. This precautionary principle, which began in Europe, simply means that in risky situations we should fear the worst and then play safe. Argues that this principle is an incoherent and potentially dangerous response to them. Overall, the idea of utility-maximizing consumer has its uses but turns out to be too shallow a foundation on which to construct either a social theory or a human identity. (Notes from James Harkin's reviews, FT, Oct. 15-16.)