Monday, August 6, 2012

The "Tyranny" Of Choice: It's Not Because There Are Too Many Choices

It's old news that having too many choices is annoying the hell out of the modern western consumer.  A few years ago some social scientists set up a jam tasting operation in a supermarket.  When they offered 24 kinds of jam, only 3 percent of tasters bought some jam.  When they offered 6 kinds of jam, it shot up to 30 percent.  Fewer choices meant more satisfied consumers.

When I first heard this I was a little bit like "Oh, thank god we've moved on from stupid things like "under what conditions are people willing to follow an authority figure" and onto the important stuff about how we poor denizens of the first world are dealing with the oppression of having 48,750 items in the average supermarket.  The Economist even goes so far as to say we're living under a "Tyranny of Choice."

Whatever.  I'm sure having a lot of options does exhaust people.  But as so often happens, the frame of this problem focuses on something relatively trivial and sets aside the difficult and important question, which is how having more choices affects people socially.  Because sometimes having more options doesn't just mean you have to choose.  It means you have to explain and justify your choice in different ways.  Your "no" now rejects more things, and takes on a different significance.

A tiny example.  When I was a little kid I got hit on the head with a swing, and I have a small scar in the middle of my eyebrow.  My feeling is basically like "who cares?"  It is not a big deal.  Then as an adult I broke my nose falling off my bike, and I had a plastic surgeon putting it back together, and he was all "I can fix this eyebrow! Cheap! I'll give you a discount!" and I was like "No, thanks, I'm fine the way I am" and he was all "WTF is wrong with you?  You want your eyebrow to be all fucked up?" 

Having a new option definitely made it more difficult to choose what I wanted to choose in the first place.  In the end I told him that I didn't want too many changes in my face all at once, which was pretty close to the truth.  But now whenever I encounter the Beauty Industrial Complex there's this constant discussion about eyebrow pencils and how I can just be filling that in and why don't I do that and it's exhausting saying over and over that, small as it seems, I don't want to deal with the hassle of an eyebrow pencil everyday.   These conversations are so annoying, I can't even deal with the situation.  I mostly stay home and do the amateur pluck.

The eyebrow is a tiny thing.  But what if it was your job?  Suppose you had a family, and a job you really liked that didn't pay very well, and no other employment options.  Then one day you're offered a much less pleasant job that pays much better.  Suddenly you are in a very difficult situation.  It's not at all clear that your situation hasn't been made worse by having this new option.  If you choose the new job you'll hate it.  If you choose to keep your old one, your relations with your family will be forever affected by the way you chose to put your own needs first. 

In this way having more options can be worse, not for the relatively small reason that you have to make an exhausting choice from lots of options -- there are only two! -- but for the more complex and difficult reason that your choice now has a different significance for you and the people close to you.

In the Economist article, the "tyranny" of choice is attributed to the fact that the more options you have the less confident you can be that you've made a good choice.  They conclude that the more choices you have, the more you try to control what happens, when in fact you'd be better off just choosing something and sticking to it.  Applying this interpretation to the availability of procreation choices, they say:
"Fifty years after the contraceptive pill was first licensed in America and 37 years after the Supreme Court legalised abortion, women seem to agonise more than ever about breeding. “We've grown up with a lot more choice than our mothers or grandmothers; for them, being child-free wasn't a choice, it was pitied,” says Beth Follini, an American life coach who specialises in the “maybe baby” dilemma. “The anxiety comes from worrying about making the wrong choice.” Having options seems to make people think they can have control over outcomes too. Sometimes, says Ms Follini, choosing is about learning to live without control."
Sure, people are anxious about making the wrong choice.  But this passage treats the question as if it's just a woman in a room alone thinking about babies.  That's nuts.  For one thing, obviously a person's reproductive choices are shaped by a million social factors:  will I be able to finish school, what if I can't make enough money? and, for Americans, what if I lose my health insurance?  The "anxiety" a person feels about making the wrong choice has as much to do with the social conditions that shape the results of that choice than with how well one looks into one's inner heart.      

Furthermore, as I've been arguing here, the increase of options affects the way your choice is embedded in your own social world.  There can hardly be a choice that impacts more on the people close to you than a reproductive choice.  Because of increased options, whatever you do now, you have to be able to explain and justify your reproductive choices in terms that make sense to a lot of people.

And of course the more the options, the more questions arise about why this or why that.  When people ask me if if I'm planning to have kids and if not why not, I sometimes try to avoid a long discussion by saying "I'm too old now to have kids," which I am.  But people often respond by pointing out that this is not, in fact, literally, true:  with the new reproductive technologies, I could have kids at almost any age!  The simplest part of the answer becomes the most complicated. 

I'm not prone to anxiety about things like this, but for someone who was, it'd be a minefield.  Not, I'll say again, because choosing from among a lot of options is difficult or exhausting, and not because of fear of making the "wrong" choice for me personally, but because what could be the simplest "no" in the world is now a powerful, public statement about values, desires, and what matters in life.  If people are fearful and anxious about choices, it's more over the constant need to make these statements, and not so much a 24-kinds-of-jam-sort-of-thing.   

Notice how the "tyranny of choice" problem, in the "too many choices" interpretation, has been framed as a problem about individual human psychology, a problem we humans confront from within our individualistic consumer culture -- a culture that is simply taken for granted.  "Oh, look, those humans, they have trouble deciding from too many kinds of jam, poor things." 

The natural corollary to this "too many choices" interpretation is obvious:  we'd be better off with fewer choices.  That may be so when it comes to jam:  I'm not a 24-kinds-of-jam-person myself.  But I hope it's clear how sinister it is when applied to reproductive choices.  Oh, poor people, they have choice anxiety, they have too many choices!  Let's take some away.

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