February 8th 2011
If you can have everything in 57 varieties, making decisions becomes hard work.
The tyranny of choice.
Choice seduces the modern consumer.
The average American supermarket now carries 48,750 items, according to the Food Marketing Institute, more than five times the number in 1975. Britain’s Tesco stocks 91 different shampoos, 93 varieties of toothpaste and 115 of household cleaner.
Thanks to a mix of modern medicine, technology and social change, choice has expanded from the grocery shelf to areas that once had few or none.
Teenagers can choose to surf, chat, tweet, zap or poke in ways that their parents could barely think. Moving pictures and music can be viewed, recorded, downloaded or streamed on all manner of screens or devices. The internet has handed huge power to the consumer to research options, whether of medical procedures or weekend breaks. Even the choice of price-comparison sites to help people choose is expanding.
Offline choices have multiplied too. European Union citizens can move, study, work and live wherever they like within the union. The University of California, Berkeley, has over 350 degree programmes, including Buddhist Studies and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies, each made up of scores of courses.
Choice has come to some of life’s biggest personal decisions as well. In many countries couples can decide whether and where to marry, cohabit, divorce or remarry. Internet dating promises to find a match from a database of potential partners.
Many of these options have improved life immeasurably in the rich world and in poorer parts. They are testimony to human ingenuity and innovation. Free choice is the basis on which markets work, driving competition and generating economic growth. It is the cornerstone of liberal democracy.
But amid all the possibilities, a question remains answered: is so much extra choice a good thing?
Over the past decade behavioural scientists have come up with some intriguing insights such as the fact that people’s expectations have been inflated to such an extent that people think the perfect choice exists and that too much choice, concluded Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and Mark Lepper of Stanford, is demotivating.
Barry Schwartz in “The Paradox of Choice” says, “choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannise.” In other words, as Mr Schwartz puts it, “the fact that some choice is good doesn’t necessarily mean that more choice is better.”
Too many options means too much effort to make a sensible decision: better to bury your head under a pillow, or have somebody else pick for you. The vast majority of shoppers in the Californian grocery store faced with 24 jam varieties simply chose not to buy any. The more expensive an item—a car, say—the more difficult the decision. As the French saying has it: “Trop de choix tue le choix” (too much choice kills the choice).
A 2010 study by researchers at the University of Bristol found that 47% of respondents thought life was more confusing than it was ten years ago, and 42% reported lying awake at night trying to solve problems.
It could be that today’s children, growing up in a world of abundant choice, will find decisions even harder to take when they grow up. Their lives may be packed with instant choices as they zap from one site to another while texting a friend and listening to music on YouTube.
But much of this is reflexive activity. The digital generation is doing what Mr Schwartz calls “picking”, not “choosing”: “With a world of choices rushing by like a music video,” he says, “all a picker can do is grab this or that and hope for the best.” Young people have grown up with masses of choice, says Dan O’Neil, a British life coach who helps people overcome indecision, “but they have never learned to make a choice and run with it. In adult life, they aren’t equipped to deal with it.”
Those in the business of helping people choose offer various tips. Mr Jack O’Neil says the key is taking a decision: “The truth is that it doesn’t matter what we choose, only that we do choose.” Stick to the choices that matter and eliminate the rest, suggests one advocate of simple living, who supplies no fewer than 72 steps to choose from in order to simplify life. Another helpfully explains that “when you approach simple living, sometimes the decision is clear. Sometimes it’s not.”
The trouble with simplifying your life, it turns out, is that it involves too many choices.