How to Choose Wisely

Sparkling or still water? Organic or conventional avocados? Four stars or three-and-a-half? The modern world sets loose upon us a barrage of choice in the consumer marketplace, while the Internet not only expands our consumption opportunities—giving us most of the world’s music in a smartphone app—it offers us myriad new chances to learn about the tastes, and distastes, of others.

For several years, leading up to the 2016 publication of my book You May Also Like: Taste in An Age of Endless Choice, I dove into the latest research on consumer behavior, via social science, psychology, and neuroscience. Now, to help you navigate the confusing landscape of endless choices, to choose wisely, more efficiently, and with greater self-awareness, I have distilled some of that research into the form of an advice column—though in this case I also supplied the questions, based on real questions that arose during my research, and which I have subsequently heard from friends and readers.

I was trying to find a hotel in Florence last night on TripAdvisor. I spent hours reading reviews and afterward felt less certain about my choice than when I began. Can I trust the “wisdom of crowds” at places like TripAdvisor and Yelp?

First, let’s unpack that phrase. An often neglected point that author James Surowiecki made in his popular 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds is that a group is “far more likely to come up with a good decision if the people in the group of are independent of each other.” In other words, the crowd has a better chance of being wise when they do not have access to “the same old data everyone is already familiar with.” On Yelp, TripAdvisor, Amazon, and other hives of user-generated ratings and reviews, people are not acting alone. The review that they write will be seen by many other people, and before

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