In the West, where choice is synonymous with liberalism and progress, the idea that someone would tell us what to wear, what to eat and what to do for a living is unthinkable. The prerogative to choose is essential to living a good life - without it we wouldn’t have our own identities or basic human rights, but is there such a thing as too much?
Psychologist Brian Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, would say yes. The exponential growth of choice thanks to technology and global capitalism has given us a matching burden of decision-making power. For Schwartz, holding onto the ‘all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction—even to clinical depression.’
Half a century ago if you wanted to watch TV you had a choice of two or three channels, each screening at fixed times. Today, thousands of film and television series are within easy reach, ready to be binged or paused at will. If you want ‘a coffee,’ you can walk into Starbucks and be offered over 80,000 drink combinations. Schwartz talks about trying to renew his favourite pair of Levis and being flabbergasted in the face of a plethora of cuts, washes and colours.
Expectations, perfection and disappointment
In the range of temperatures, coffee beans, milks, density, strength, flavour lies your ideal coffee. If you looked through all of Prime, Netflix, iPlayer, all 4, Sky, surely you’d find the exact box set for your mood. And if you spent a day sifting through piles of jeans, maybe you'd come home with the perfect pair.
At a basic level, choice can be a time waster. If you’ve ever opened a screening service with friends, intending to pick a film, you’ve probably experienced the trolling through of trailers, descriptions, reviews and the chopping and changing when the selection was not quite right.
With greater options come higher expectations. If these expectations aren’t met, the fault lies, not with the proprietor, but with the customer who made the selection. On some level, we find our identity in the things we do and the items we possess. If disappointed by our selection; one we had total control over, that purchase can lead to ‘self-blame.’
Schwartz also identifies increase in envy in our choice-laden culture - and he was writing before social media went into hyperdrive. We’re more likely to compare ourselves to other, perhaps envying their taste as well as their possessions.
Ultimately, research shows that we are more satisfied when presented with fewer options than we are when presented with more - despite logic suggesting greater variety would please a greater number of people.
Coffee and film mishaps are frivolous but they’re not the only industries that have been exploded by choice. The millennial malaise, evidenced by a sharp increase in mental health diagnoses, is also thought to be a product of too much choice, in terms of lifestyle and career options.
Bloombox Club and Choice
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