The Tyranny of Choice

This happens to me all the time:  I’m standing in a supermarket aisle paralyzed by choices.  Do I want a toothpaste that whitens teeth, cleans tartar, freshens my mouth, has the flavor of cinnamon, mint or peach, or is just the plain-old “original” brand.  I face the same problem when it comes to spaghetti sauce (with basil or garlic or mushrooms?), laundry detergent (unscented or “sea breeze” or fabric softener?), orange juice (pulp or no pulp, Vitamin D or no?).  And we haven’t even gotten to that classic encounter with the world of over-choice, Starbucks.

There’s obviously much to be said for consumer choice.  But it’s also true that a life marked by boundless choice ends up being a life of hyper-calculation in pursuit of a perfection that always seems just a little bit out of reach.  When buying a big-ticket item – a car, a refrigerator, a camera – no one wants to make the “wrong” choice,” so we really bear down and do comparative research.  The fantasy takes shape that if only we make the right choice, a kind of worldly beatitude will prevail.   

How fascinating that The Economist magazine recently devoted three full pages to the “tyranny of choice,” in which the case is made that perhaps the proliferation of choice is actually an insidious form of servitude.  “If you can have everything in 57 varieties,” the magazine writes, “making decisions becomes hard work.” 

Behavioral researchers have found that too much choice is “de-motivating” – i.e., people don’t buy.  In various tests, a limited array of choices is actually a better way to stimulate consumers to make purchases of jam, chocolates or 401(k) pension plans.  The Economist notes:

As options multiply, there may be a point at which the effort required to obtain enough information to be able to distinguish sensibly between alternatives outweighs the benefit to the consumer of the extra choice.  “At this point,” writes Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice, “choice no longer liberates, but debilitates.  It might even be said to tyrannize.”  In other words, as Mr. Schwartz puts it, “the fact that somechoice is good doesn’t necessarily mean that morechoice is better.”

Daniel McFadden, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, says that consumers find too many options troubling because of the “risk of misperception and miscalculation, of misunderstanding the available alternatives, of misreading one’s own tastes, of yielding to a moment’s whim and regretting it afterwards,” combined with “the stress of information acquisition.” 

Branding is supposed to simplify life by developing a familiarity with trustworthy products.  But marketers can’t leave well enough alone.  To eke out even more money, “brand extensions” try to fill up a product category with contrived niche products….or migrate into entirely new product lines. 

Increasingly, it seems, branding is running up against a wall of consumer resistance.  We can only process so many product choices in our minds.  Many choices are really quite frivolous or gratuitous.  We are easily overwhelmed, and the very process of “utility maximization” that economists celebrate as the height of economic progress becomes a terrible burden.  We become slaves to our materialist orientation.  The Economist article makes clear that, at least for consumer staples like coffee and soap, over-choice diminishes our lives.  Movements based on voluntary simplicity and “green living” are starting to turn people away from the glut of stuff that really doesn’t make us that happy.   Or as Bill McKibben's book puts, it Enough!

Now, if only economists and government officials would begin to develop new economic theories and policies to recognize this basic human reality.  We don’t need any more stuff or consumer choices along a narrow spectrum of marketability.  What we actually need is a broader spectrum of real marketplace choices -- or at least, more judicious qualitative choices.  This includes the option of no stuff and deeper social engagement with each other.  And for the things that we do need, we need stuff that is longer-lasting, better-quality and respectful of the environment.  The only question is, what businesses are going to offer us these choices -- or the choice of doing with less?