When customers enter the Ralphs supermarket near UCLA, they see a sign announcing how many different fruits and vegetables the produce department has on hand: “724 produce varieties available today,” it says, including 93 organic selections.
Sixty dozen varieties is a mind-boggling number. And that’s just in the produce department. Over in the cheese section, this pretty run-of-the-mill supermarket offers 14 types of feta alone. Not so long ago, finding feta of any type required a trip to a specialty shop.
During the past couple of decades, the American economy has undergone a variety revolution. Instead of simply offering mass-market goods, businesses of all sorts increasingly compete to give consumers more personalised products, more varied experiences and more choice.
Average Americans order non-fat decaf iced vanilla lattes at Starbucks. Amazon gives every town a bookstore with two million titles, while Netflix promises 35,000 different movies on DVD. Choice is everywhere, liberating to some but to others a new source of stress. Maybe the sign in Ralphs is not an enticement but a warning.
The proliferation of choices goes well beyond groceries to our most significant personal decisions. Young, well-educated adults in particular have unprecedented freedom to make whatever they want of their lives: to decide where to live, what to do, whom to befriend, whom (or whether) to marry.
“Since graduation, we’ve struggled to make our own happiness,” Jenny Norenberg, a young lawyer, writes in Newsweek. “It seems that having so many choices has sometimes overwhelmed us. In the seven years since I left home for college, I’ve had thirteen addresses and lived in six cities. How can I stay with one person, at one job, in one city, when I have the world at my fingertips?”
It’s all too much, declares the latest line of social criticism. Americans are facing a crisis of choice. We’re increasingly unhappy, riddled with anxiety and regret, because we have so much freedom to decide what to do with our money and our lives. Some choice may be good, but we’ve gone over the limit.
To these critics, providing too many choices is the latest way liberal societies in general, and markets in particular, make people miserable. We’d be better off with fewer decisions to make.
“As the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear,” writes Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice, published in January 2004. “As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannise.”
Schwartz’s book has become a touchstone, not just for social critics but for self-help gurus and marketing professionals looking for the Next Big Thing. Its argument also offers a scientific-seeming alternative to public policies that expand choice, notably in health care and retirement accounts.
Schwartz, writes Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby in an article on private Social Security accounts, “Freedom and choice are wonderful things that allow us to realise our human potential. But there’s a limit to how many choices each of us has time to make and most people in the rich world are pretty much maxed out already.”
In his opening chapter, Schwartz recounts his troubles buying jeans at The Gap. What used to be a five-minute task requiring no more information than a waist size and length now demands multiple decisions and an unnerving amount of self-awareness.