Choice is a modern obsession, the dominant mantra whether we go to the supermarket or to the polls. We demand choice, but increasingly are paralysed when faced with it.
As a younger person, by which I mean I am under the age of 40, I experience and see my friends experiencing a bewildering range of choices. Whether it is the choice of 12 different types of pasta sauce or ten different paths of career, it is a fact of daily life and a marker of our society’s great success.
But choice is perhaps reaching epidemic proportions, to the point where people would often avoid having to choose for fear of choosing badly.
An American social scientist, Barry Schwartz, showed that people were more likely to buy a jam when shown six different choices than when they were shown 24. This seems irrational intuitively, because we are surely more likely to find something we like from the wider choice. Schwartz pins the reason down as the irrational way people measure opportunity cost. Rather than thinking of the one other jam they have forgone, people often think of all the jams they have forgone when they are presented with the wider choice.
This is related, Schwartz says, to the problem he calls “miswanting”. We tend to think of wanting as a prediction of what we might like. But these predictions are often way out and current preferences contaminate future plans. For example, hungry people tend to buy too much food at the supermarket and full people too little.
The Nobel prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, says our minds focus on the peak and the final moments of a past experience while crowding out memories of its duration.
The upshot is that, in general, we are not very good at choosing given a whole lot of choices.
My impression is a growing number of people are opting out of choice in their wider lives as well, beyond the earth shattering decisions between full fat, low fat or skim milk. The rise in working hours is not only a function of economics or the status anxiety of employees, but is often a function of people choosing what they can control over what they cannot. In work it pays to be obsessive. There are more likely to be strict guidelines or algorithms in determining our future directions, especially in more technical fields. Obsession and a desire to control are rewarded with promotions and bonuses.
In our personal lives, there are a myriad of difficult choices we have to make, many of which we cannot control and in situations where we must divulge the parts or ourselves that lack polish or good packaging.
Working in mental health, I am familiar with the regular references to a growing crisis in the sector, with statistics suggesting that up to one in three people suffer from an undiagnosed mental health problem. But my feeling is that as a society, especially in the dominant, secular, rational world view, the language of mental health provides the words we now use to describe any form of emotional distress, especially when used in combination with the word “stress”. As a result, when we feel overwhelmed or even just contemplative, we are more likely to call the feelings depression or an anxiety disorder.
But another aspect of working in the field is that there are also a plethora of choices we are asked to make about the self we decide to create. The choices of being are so limitless in our globalised, virtual, interconnected world that the constant thought that we may have chosen badly can send us into waves of doubt, guilt and self-loathing. In a respect, we are prisoners of our hard-won freedoms. Our choice of work represents one such choice. Cheap travel lets us explore other realities and lets us dream of an alternative self. All of this exposure adds to our sense of doubt, that perhaps we have not chosen wisely.
But this is a necessary by-product of free will and the capacity to shape our lives. The alternative is far worse, a totalitarian existence where our choices are made for us, also known as communism. Give me the choice between chocolate chip, caramel, honey nougat and ten different types of vanilla any day.
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