Free to Choose?
We are lousy at making up our minds. Advertisers may goad us with slogans like “The choice is clear” and “There is only one good choice,” and the economists who champion rational-choice theory may still evoke a generic, utility-maximizing consumer who sizes up every situation in terms of his or her personal advantage. But after several decades of research—most famously that of Nobel Prize–winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky—it has become widely accepted, save among some skeptical social scientists, that the ability of any one of us to choose what’s in our best interest is severely limited.
It seems that we routinely overestimate what we know. We fail to predict what we will want in the future. We are inconsistent about our preferences. We value the objects we possess over the ones we lack in ways that don’t make any objective sense. And having better or more extensive information does not necessarily improve matters. That’s because when making choices, we also tend to ignore facts that do not jibe with the outcome we desire; we focus on information that is irrelevant, or see patterns where they do not exist, or get distracted by our fleeting emotions. Then, if the possibilities are presented differently, our choices will shift accordingly, suggesting that on top of it all, we are easily manipulated by those in the business of manufacturing situations bloated with options. By and large, when it comes time to choose, the impulsive, unreflective parts of the brain dominate the analytic parts. Or to put it differently, adults are a lot more like children than we might care to admit.
It’s a verdict around which a lucrative genre of business and self-help books has developed. On the heels of bestsellers like Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow; How We Decide, by the discredited former New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer; and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, all of which successfully popularized scholarly findings on our mental fallibility, have come a slew of instruction manuals promising businesspeople, consumers and even the lovelorn the key to beating the decision-making odds. Airport bookstores are well stocked with offerings like Make Up Your Mind: A Decision Making Guide to Thinking Clearly and Choosing Wisely (2012); Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life or Work (2013); Eyes Wide Open: How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World (2013); and The Happiness Choice: The Five Decisions That Will Take You From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be (2013)—not to mention specialized guides focused on careers, marriage, health and nutrition, consumer goods, and personal finance, all of them crammed with lessons about choice. Last year, even the Harvard Business Review weighed in with “10 Must Reads on Making Smart Decisions.” The message? If we understand our foibles and learn to choose more self-consciously, each of us will do a lot better making up our minds in the future.
But what if such how-to manuals, with their emphasis on enlarging the scope of personal responsibility to include choosing to monitor one’s own decision-making psychology, are better seen as symptoms of what ails us? What if the real problem is the imperative of making all those choices in all those different realms, from sex to software, in the first place? This is the view of a small number of philosophers, legal theorists and culturally aware psychologists, including Barry Schwartz and, more recently, Sheena Iyengar, Sigal Ben-Porath, Kent Greenfield and Renata Salecl. They insist that we have become overwhelmed and even “tyrannized” by our culture’s overinvestment in choice.
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In this telling, the problem stretches from the supermarket, with its average of 42,686 different items from which to prepare tonight’s dinner and care for the home, to the halls of Congress, where both sides of the aisle take the expansion of choice to be an unqualified good, even as they disagree about what needs choosing. As Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky told an Energy Department official in exasperation at a 2011 Senate committee hearing, “You favor a woman’s right to an abortion, but you don’t favor a woman or a man’s right to choose what kind of lightbulb.” Choice may be a bedrock value in terms of capitalism and democracy, a prerogative that stands for freedom and control over one’s own image and destiny. But, argue Salecl, Greenfield and others, an ill-considered collective investment in picking from a proliferating and often phony array of options is having adverse effects on mental health and social and political life alike.
On the one hand, the constant obligation to choose leaves people perpetually anxious and, at times, incapable of making up their minds at all. It doesn’t matter if the choice concerns shampoos (where the differences among options appear large but are actually negligible) or healthcare (where the differences can be difficult to discern but matter greatly). We dither and refuse to commit, because to make a choice is to enter a realm of uncertainty and missed opportunities. On the other hand, given the dominance of the view that choice-making stands for independence and personal responsibility (remember Milton and Rose Friedman’s famed PBS series Free to Choose), we can’t help feeling guilty when, once we have made up our minds, things go awry. We are conditioned to conclude not that luck, fate, God or some other force has let us down, but that the choices we have made must have been less than optimal—which only aggravates the stress of the next “preference determination.” This is, in Iyengar’s terms, the “mental and emotional tax” that too much freedom of choice exacts. We—meaning everyone who lives in countries dominated by the ideology of consumerism, democracy and individualism—feel habitually worn out by all the effort.
Plus, according to Greenfield and others, there are secondary effects of choice overload that we have hardly recognized, much less rectified. Many of our choices turn out, upon reflection, to be largely meaningless (think of those scarcely distinguishable shampoos); we are all a lot less free than we generally suppose. But most of us also fail to notice how a consumer-oriented focus on the value of exercising our options leaves out and, indeed, punishes others, especially the poor. Adults without the economic means to enter the market never face the same range of possibilities, yet their (and their children’s) failure to flourish is routinely ascribed to their not having “taken responsibility” and made the “right choices,” whether in school, on the street or around the dinner table. This diagnosis airbrushes structural inequality out of the picture. What’s more, Salecl notes in the most thoroughgoing of these social critiques, our collective obsession with individual choice distracts us from pursuing collective solutions to these dilemmas. It seems we are always on the way home to ponder (and worry about) all the incredible possibilities before us on Match.com or the 700-channel desert of cable TV.
Technology, however, is but one of the culprits—and not the most significant one—in these cautionary tales. Their subject matter is essentially modern life, considered as the hazily defined and largely unanticipated consequence of some blend of Enlightenment notions of the self and freedom, the explosion of consumer culture, the live-and-let-live ethos of the 1960s and, as icing on the cake, the technological revolution associated with the home computer that has multiplied the offerings in every domain from the hundreds or thousands to the millions or billions. Domestic and international political developments play a smaller explanatory role in each of these accounts than they should. But all of these authors (with the partial exception of Iyengar) take for granted that while an obsession with choice is the peculiar invention of the West, and especially of the United States, it is becoming a global norm.
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