ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms
Musings13 Dec 2009

The global corporation sells mass-production techniques, even in their branch plant version. To be profitable, however, mass production requires mass consumption—that is, the homogenization of the tastes, needs, values, and priorities of all the nations within which the firm and its subsidiaries operate. In the name of technical efficiency, we erase the differences among persons, the style and the art of their living. People of different cultures and nations in varying stages of development are made, through enormous selling and advertising pressure, to want the same things. The freedom of the individual to choose, to maintain his own preferences, and to search for satisfaction, is reduced.

Economist Eric W. Kierans, from his 1983 Massey Lecture, “Globalism and the Nation State”

In this TED talk on the paradox of choice, Psychologist Barry Schwartz suggests that the west’s vaunted “freedom of choice” is not liberating but crippling. Not only do too many options bewilder us, he says, but they also raise our expectations. He gives the example of buying a new pair of jeans. In the past, there had only been one kind of jeans, but on a recent trip to the clothing store, he discovered that there were many different options to choose from. He eventually left the store with the best-fitting pair of jeans he’d ever owned.

All this choice made it possible for me to do better. But I felt worse. Why? […] The reason I felt worse is that with all of these options available, my expectations of how good a pair of jeans should be went up. I had no particular expectations when they only came in one flavor; when they came in one hundred flavors, damn it, one of them should have been perfect. What I got was good, but it wasn’t perfect. So I compared what I got to what I expected, and what I got was disappointing.

I think Schwartz is on the right track, but in light of Kieran’s observation, I wonder if Schwartz might have missed something. He says that when there was only one flavor of jeans, he had no expectations. If he had no expectations, he can’t have been very invested in his need for a pair of jeans. Perhaps the kind of choice that we find so paralyzing is actually choice among options that don’t really appeal to us in any deep way. Why was Schwartz so sure he actually wanted jeans in the first place? Was his desire for them a product of advertising and social convention rather than an expression of his real preferences?

If you have to choose among 100 options when your heart isn’t really in it, of course you’ll have a rough time. When it comes to choosing things that you really care about, having a wide range of options does not seem negative. For example, I never feel buyer’s remorse after a trip to the bookstore, but then I love books much more than I love jeans. Maybe we don’t have a paradox of choice so much as an illusion of choice. Choosing among a hundred pairs of jeans is not a real choice, if jeans are not meaningful to the chooser. Maybe the reason Schwartz felt deflated after buying his jeans is that he thought he was getting a choice, but in the end it wasn’t a meaningful one.

2 Responses to “Lots of Options”

  1. 13 Dec 2009 at 11:42 pm Jamie

    I think it’s interesting comparing Schwartz’s talk with Malcolm Gladwell’s talk about spaghetti sauce, and how there wasn’t enough variety, and people are much happier with variety.

  2. 16 Dec 2009 at 10:42 pm Ian

    That Gladwell, always stirring up controversy…

    It’s a good talk, and I hadn’t seen it, so thanks for directing me there.

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