In July, Liz Hollis wrote an excellent article for The Times online on the topic of choice — too much choice. We excerpt that article below.
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For the naturally indecisive, Hell is choosing what to put in your supermarket trolley. Successfully negotiate the 38 choices of milk that I counted for sale in my local Tesco (organic, skimmed, soya, omega3 enriched or filtered for purity) and you’re then confronted with jam overload: 154 flavours.
Selecting from the banks of rosehip jam handcrafted in the Pyrenees, fig conserve, Scandinavian blackcurrant with “bits” or without, could take you all day. Then there’s the aisle with 107 varieties of pasta and 98 types of fruit cordial . . .
Choice aplenty – indeed, so much that psychologists now believe that it is making us miserable. Most big supermarkets provide us with about 30,000 products, and each year they add more. Indeed, for a taste of what the future might look like in every store, visit the latest temple of runaway choice – the giant new American Whole Foods Market in Kensington High Street, West London. Here, choice rules supreme. You can choose from 1,000 wine labels, 100 types of nuts, oats and grains and more than 40 varieties of sausage.
“I feel as though I’ve been punched in the face after I’ve been round somewhere like Morrisons,” says Joy Miller, 39, who runs a communications business in Norwich. “It’s so overwhelming that it just makes you feel awful. If you carefully considered every aspect – ethics, food miles, price, flavour and ingredients – you’d never get round to buying anything, ever.”
Of course, it doesn’t stop at groceries. Everywhere you turn there is a mind-boggling parade of clothes, gadgets, financial products, holidays and entertainment. Tantalised by all these buying options, we stockpile our shopping baskets, homes and lives with ever more consumer goods that we probably don’t need or even appreciate. And this isn’t good for our happiness.
“The huge number of choices that assault us every day makes many of us feel inadequate and in some cases even clinically depressed,” says Professor Barry Schwartz, a psychologist from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and the author of The Paradox of Choice.“ There is vastly too much choice in the modern world and we are paying an enormous price for it. It makes us feel helpless, mentally paralysed and profoundly dissatisfied.”
Professor Schwartz believes that the dogma of all Western societies – that maximising freedom and choice increases welfare – is deeply flawed. “It wouldn’t surprise me if eventually you’ll be able to buy a mobile phone with integral nasal-hair trimmer and crème brûl�e torch,” he speculates sardonically.
So why does having so much choice make us feel miserable? Shouldn’t we be delighted that we can travel to any corner of the planet for our holidays, or select from tens of thousands of financial plans? Sadly not. Because making a decision is now a nightmare. We can easily end up with what psychologists call “consumer vertigo”, that is, swamped with so many options that we can’t make any decision, or decide wrongly.
“So much choice makes decision-making increasingly complex,” says David Shanks, a psychology professor and the co-author of Straight Choices, a new book that examines how to make the best decisions when faced with a perplexing array of options. We feel bad that every time we do make a choice, it seems we are missing out on other opportunities. This makes us feel inadequate and dissatisfied with what we have chosen. Often, we feel bamboozled and just shove a familiar or prominently displayed brand into our basket. Then we feel useless because we can’t cook gourmet dinners like Jamie Oliver and don’t know what to do with any of these exotic new ingredients. So we end up buying and eating the same meals time and again.
This excess also numbs us to the heady pleasure felt by previous generations when they bought something new in an era when budgets were leaner and consumer goods in shorter supply. All we can think about now is what we still want to buy, rather than appreciating what we have.
Children are not immune, either. How can choosing yet another throwaway plastic trinket from the zoo gift shop ever equal the intensity felt by the 1940s child unwrapping just a couple of presents a year – on their birthday and at Christmas?
Experiments confirm that the less choice we have, the better we feel. Professor Mark Lepper and his team at Stanford University in America found that consumers who tested six jams went on to buy more and feel happier than those offered 24 jams to taste. Another experiment showed that giving students a choice of fewer essay topics made them produce better work.
“This suggests that we thrive when we have less choice,” says Professor Lepper. “Excess choice is paralysis rather than liberation.”
Yet the number of consumer choices available continues to multiply. “It doesn’t help that there is an ever-decreasing amount of expert advice available from shop assistants – if you can find one at all,” says Paco Underhill, chief executive of Envirosell, a research and consulting company. Consequently, many people’s homes are filled with high-tech products that offer still more unwanted choices: washing machines with a host of setting options (though we only ever use two); phones that could send e-mails if only we knew how to use them.
But if all this choice is actually harming us, what can we do about it?
Professor Lepper suggests that, for a start, we should lighten up when selecting, say, a type of bread or a disposable camera. “Don’t take making mundane choices too seriously or it gets to feel like an onerous task,” he says.
Opt for small shops that offer less choice – it’s harder to feel angst-ridden in a smaller supermarket where the choice is simply between big potatoes and small potatoes. In addition, decide on priorities before you look at what’s available – for instance, you could look only at cameras that offer a large playback screen, if that’s crucial for you. And don’t expect to become an expert; ask others who know what to look for.
To preserve mental wellbeing, save your decision-making effort for serious things that merit a large expenditure of time and effort. Then you can make better use of techniques such as those outlined by Professor Shanks and his colleagues.
“Choose when to choose,” says Professor Schwartz. “Don’t worry about what type of mobile-phone package to opt for. Pick a sofa from IKEA in 30 seconds and you’ll feel better than if you spend hours researching sofas – because you won’t know what else you’re missing out on.”
He adds that when it comes to achieving happiness it is better to be a “satisficer” who accepts a good-enough choice than a “maximiser” who always wants to make the best possible decision.
Perhaps we should all learn to love the constraints on our lives. After all, being restricted to a local job because you can’t move your children out of school, or having to buy a house near elderly relatives, makes you (and them) feel better.
“It challenges a lot of our beliefs, but it could just be that choice within constraints will make us feel a lot better,” says Professor Schwartz. “We need to live in the moment, appreciate what we have and not think about all the other things that we could choose instead.”
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To review Situationist posts that discuss the role, causes, effects, and illusion of choice, click here. To learn more about Barry Schwartz’s fascinating book, The Parodox of Choice, click here. To listen to an NPR Report, “The Mechanics of Choice,” including interviews of Sheena Iyengar and Barry Schwartz, click here. For excellent twenty-minute video of lecture by Barry schwartz, click on the video below.