Day 069 - Too much choice

Submitted by Sam on 28 July, 2011 - 22:16

Here is a syllogism that is deeply embedded in Western society. Welfare is maximized by maximizing individual freedom. Individual freedom is maximized by maximizing choice. Welfare increases with more choice.

Supermarkets are an embodiment of this belief. They are symbols of affluence and empowerment conferred through their superabundance of choice. The range of products they offer is dizzying. So disorientingly so, in fact, that too many options have paralyzing effects, making it very difficult to choose at all – a fact that completely undermines the belief that maximizing choice has unqualified beneficial effects.

If we finally do manage to make a decision and overcome this paralytic effect, too much choice diminishes the satisfaction that can be gained compared with choices made between fewer options. This is because if the choice you make leaves you feeling dissatisfied in any way it is easy to simulate the myriad of other choices that could have been better. These imagined alternatives, conjured from the myriad real alternatives, can induce regret which dilutes the satisfaction from your choice, even if it was a good one. The wider the range of options, the easier it becomes to regret even the smallest disappointment in your decision.

A wider range of choice also makes it easier to imagine the attractive features of the alternatives that have been rejected, once more diminishing the sense of satisfaction with the chosen alternative. This phenomenon is known as the opportunity cost, the sacrificial loss of other opportunities when a choice is made: choosing to do one thing is choosing not to do many other things. Many of these other choices will have attractive features which will make whatever you have chosen less attractive, no matter how good it really is.

The maximization of choice leads to an escalation of expectations, where the best that can ever be hoped for is that a decision meets expectations. In a world of extremely limited choice, pleasant surprises are possible. In a world of unlimited choice, perfection becomes the expectation: you could always have made a better choice. When there is only one choice on offer, the responsibility for the outcome of that 'choice' is outside of your control, and so any disappointment resulting from that decision can safely be blamed on external factors. But when you have to choose between hundreds of options it becomes much easier to blame oneself if anything is less than perfect. It is perhaps no coincidence that as choice has proliferated and standards have risen in the past few generations, so has the incidence of clinical depression and suicide.

What this means is that there is a critical level of choice. Some societies have too much, others patently too little. At the point at which there is too much choice in a critical proportion of our lives, our welfare is no longer improved. Too much choice is paralytic and dissatisfying, and too little is impoverishing. We don't want perfect freedom and nor do we want the absence of it; somewhere there is an optimal threshold, and affluent, materialist societies have probably already passed it.

Attribution Noncommercial Share Alike
This text, Day 069 - Too much choice, by Sam Haskell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.
Drupal theme by Kiwi Themes.