Let’s talk about choice.
There are two brilliant TED talks that I recommend on the subject of choice.
The first is by Malcolm Gladwell talking about spaghetti sauces. He details, brilliantly, how marketers went from a “one-size-fits-most” approach to the grouping approach you see in the 40+ different pasta sauces you now find. Gladwell lauds choice, saying it leads to better sales and consumer satisfaction.
The video is worth watching. Although, after you read what I’m about to write, you’ll see that choices are a bit insidious.
However, it’s the second talk that floored me. Barry Schwartz, author of the book, The Paradox of Choice explains how the consultants of the world like Gladwell helping us have more choices are making us miserable. He points out that too many choices wind up overwhelming us and making us feel like there’s something wrong with us.
Schwartz’s TED talk, also, is very worth watching.
Let me explain Schwatz’s idea with an example from a school at which I taught. The kids at that school were required to wear a basic uniform – a black collared t-shirt and khaki pants.
One day, I said to the kids, “Listen, I’m not going to talk to the administration, I won’t tell your parents – but just by a show of hands, how many of find that it’s actually easier to get dressed in the morning because we have the uniform?” Almost all of them raised their hands in agreement.
Think about it. If you only have one choice, then life is easier. You don’t even have to think about what you’re going to do, because there’s no other choice. Lack of choice makes things simpler. The kids at my school didn’t have to pick their clothes. The decision was already made for them.
I know in the morning tomorrow that I’ll have monkey milk for breakfast. It’s a frozen banana blended with almond milk and peanut butter. It’s what I drink every morning. There’s no thinking involved. However, if Jane and I are out of town, I have to look at a menu and figure out what I’m gonna eat. That’s more stressful.
(At a restaurant when there are many options on the menu, I have come up with a strategy to relieve me from being paralyzed by indecision – I find one thing that I would enjoy eating and then close the menu.)
Not having choices makes things more comfortable.
When you look at people who are really religious and can only eat in certain restaurants, their life a lot easier than yours, if you’re allowed to eat anywhere. People who have no dietary restrictions have a lot harder time figuring out what to eat.
Schwartz also points out that when we have too many choices, we feel there’s a problem with us.
Here is his explanation: if you flip through the pages of a Lands’ End or L.L. Bean catalogue, and look at the number of women’s bathing suits available, you will be amazed by the possibilities. Recently, I saw my wife, Jane, ordering one. With the staggering number of styles, colors, shapes, cuts, and sizes, I understand why she was mind-boggled.
The problem – the paradox of choice, as Barry Schwartz calls it – is that having so many choices stresses us out. If you had only two choices to pick from, and you selected a bathing suit that didn’t look good – fine, whatever. There were only two choices. But we have more choices and therefore more angst.
If there are over 70 choices, and you pick a bathing suit that doesn’t look good, then maybe you chose wrong. The more choices, the better the probability that you messed up.
Too many choices make our lives difficult.
Be thankful when you don’t have so many choices.