The Problem with Choice.

Lately, and I’m not sure why, I’ve been making my choices quicker.  I didn’t mean to start doing this, like some people decide they are going to start jogging or how some people make honest attempts to eat better food. No, I mean that, when I’m in a store or talking with people or making plans, I don’t think about the plethora of choices.  I just, well, I just do it.  A good example is when I get dressed in the morning. Sometimes I iron my clothes the night before, but most mornings I just grab something that looks decent and hit the road.  My logic is that I’ve dressed myself before, I know what looks good, I know what looks bad, and I’m normally better dressed than most people so I don’t really care.  This attitude has shifted towards other, more ambitious sectors of my life.  Instead of thinking about what I want for lunch, I grab the first thing I see. That’s anywhere, a restaurant, my fridge, the lunch room at the college, it doesn’t matter.  I don’t think about it anymore.  I bought a coat online two weeks ago.  It was going to be my winter coat and I was going to spend a good chuck of change.  I spent twenty minutes looking and, once I found the coat that looked the best, I just bought it.  I didn’t look through all the different options or sit on it for a few days. I just bought. And it’s a nice coat, too.  My recent ability to make choices quickly is because I’ve realized, suddenly, that most choices we make don’t really matter.

It’s called Choice Paralysis, and this probably isn’t the first time you’ve heard this.  This happens when you shut down when you have to make a decision and there are too many choices. You’ve first felt this in grade school when you dealt with your first multiple choice test.  You have four choices and only one of them is right. Which one?  The teacher and most anybody with a third of a brain will tell a student that your first choice is the right choice.  It’s when you second-guess yourself that you make a mistake.  That instinct, to trust your instincts, should spill over into other parts of our lives, too.  When you go get medicine for a cold, you could spend hours looking at all the different ones.  Or, you could just get the first one that doesn’t make you drowsy.  You could go shopping for shoes and go from shop to shop shopping for shoes. Or, you can just buy the first pair of shoes you like.

Barry Schwartz wrote about this in Doing Better but Feeling Worse: The Paradox of Choice.  In his essay, he writes about how choices are making our lives harder, which seems unintuitive, but makes sense once you let it roll around in your brain. He writes:

This chapter argues that choice, and with it freedom, autonomy, and self- determination, can become excessive, and that when that happens, freedom can be experienced as a kind of misery-inducing tyranny. Unconstrained freedom leads to paralysis. It is self-determination within significant constraints—within “rules” of some sort—that leads to well-being, to optimal functioning.

He qualifies this, of course, discussing how we enjoy choice and, in fact, it is good for us to have choice.

As important as the instrumental value of choice may be, choice reflects another value that might be even more important. Freedom to choose has expressive value. Choice is what enables us to tell the world who we are and what we care about. Every choice we make is a testament to our autonomy. Almost every social, moral, or political philosopher in the Western tradition since Plato has placed a premium on such autonomy. And each new expansion of choice gives us another opportunity to assert our autonomy, and thus display our character. It is difficult to imagine a single aspect of our collective social life that would be recognizable if we abandoned our commitment to autonomy.

However, all this choice can be damaging:

There is a cost to having an overabundance of choice. As the number of choices people face keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until, ultimately, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates.

I find this very true with my students. They have computer workstations that are connected to the internet.  I allow them to get on the internet before class and on their breaks (I have a little control thingy). Sometimes I let them have the internet on during my lecture, just to see if they can pay attention.  Some can. Most can’t.  The choice, the option of having the internet, is too much. They would rather risk me fussing at them and get on the internet than to simply not get on it.  Once they get on it, the choices are compounded by all the different websites, a thousand choices. Once I cut the internet off, they are fine. I swear, I think sometimes they are even thankful for it.

Another example is when I make my students find sources for their papers.  I show them where they can find the sources, but they have the hardest times finding them.  Why? Because there are thousands of options.  Thousands.  They want to look through every one of them. Mostly, they want to know the ones I like.  They get annoyed, and frustrated, when I force them to make their own decisions.  They want the freedom to do what they want to, but they want me to reaffirm their decisions.  They want the freedom until they don’t want the freedom anymore.

I’m convinced that the most successful people in the world waste little time choosing anything. They move like lions through all the different options we have.  I know that my life is much more peaceful now that I’ve tried to think less and act more.  Still, I enjoy choices. The more, the better. And I would fight anyone who wanted to give me less choice, even if having less choices makes my life easier.  My ability to control my compulsions should be self-regulated, not externally instigated.

You can download a PDF of Barry Schwartz’s essay here.



2 thoughts on “The Problem with Choice.

  1. Nice post, Mr. Slacks. I’ve been thinking a lot about choice in terms of public school systems that are pushing for more school choice. Choosing a school is much more important than what to eat for lunch or shoes to buy, you’ll probably agree. But how many options is too many? I came across Barry Schwartz in the process of trying to figure that out.

    What I find most compelling in his argument against excessive choice is his argument for the redistribution of wealth. Take from those for whom choice has become a burden, and give choices to those who have none. We’d all be better off.

    Thank you for this thoughtful post.

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