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Free to Choose? | The Nation

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Free to Choose?

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An aisle in a virtual reality Tesco supermarket

An aisle in a virtual reality Tesco supermarket

The Art of Choosing
By Sheena Iyengar.
Buy this book

Tough Choices
Structured Paternalism and the Landscape of Choice.
By Sigal R. Ben-Porath.
Buy this book

The Myth of Choice
Personal Responsibility in a World of Limits.
By Kent Greenfield.
Buy this book

The Tyranny of Choice
By Renata Salecl.
Buy this book

The bulk of these books is given over to laying bare the problem, often with a focus on consumer behavior, rather than considering what could be done to remedy the situation. A repeated touchstone is Iyengar and her colleague Mark Lepper’s taste-testing experiment in which shoppers in an upscale food market in California were presented with, on one occasion, samples of three flavors of jam and, on another occasion, twenty-four flavors. After trying a bite or two, those in the first group proved many times more likely to walk out of the store with a purchase. Those in the second group found themselves flummoxed by all the possibilities and consequently paralyzed by indecision when it came to deciding what to buy. This now-famous finding (Iyengar jokes about having to talk about it with strangers on planes) has been widely taken to illustrate the pitfalls of endlessly expanding “choice sets.” Advertisers are urged to pay attention: people yearn—despite their protestations to the contrary—for guidance in how to limit their choices. And in keeping with this marketing orientation, the prescriptions for consumers proffered by these books remain, by and large, frustratingly small, personal and individualized in nature.

One constant refrain is the importance of developing expertise in the domain in which one needs to make a choice, but even more in the psychology of decision-making. Practical knowledge of the brain’s workings gets repackaged as empowerment, a tool that will supposedly allow people not only to work successfully against their biases, but also to prioritize in the realm of choice and, in some cases, to opt out of choosing at all. Barry Schwartz, in his 2003 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, cleverly insisted that choosing not to choose was on its way to becoming the new mark of autonomy. Iyengar’s catch-phrase is that we must be “choosy about choosing.” There is also an odd infatuation on the part of many of these authors with voluntary restraints and “precommitments”: marriage contracts, self-imposed retirement savings plans, and websites like StickK.com that commit a user to making donations to unacceptable charities as a punishment for violating a contract—say, to quit smoking or lose twenty pounds—made with oneself. It is hard not to see such responses as signs of resignation in the face of an unalterable status quo. If the overabundance of choice is inescapable, maybe the best one can do is to try occasionally to turn one’s back on it, often with the purchase of yet another consumer good or app.

This is certainly Iyengar’s emphasis. Her pathbreaking research on decision-making was originally made famous by Malcolm Gladwell. In The Art of Choosing, she popularizes her own findings very much in the chatty Gladwellian vein, easily moving from stories drawn from her own life to self-administered “tests” for the reader and accounts of quirky academic studies conducted in business schools and psychology departments—many of which, ironically, involve deceiving participants about their aims and, in essence, depriving them of the chance to make an informed choice. Before an oddly compelling personal account of her own experience, as a blind woman, picking a nail polish color, Iyengar makes a cloying appeal to her readers turned pals: “We’ve been together in this book for several chapters now, and you’ve been a good sport, so I’m going to share a secret: Sometimes I like to turn my choice into someone else’s problem.” It comes as no surprise, then, that her “solutions,” including boldface takeaways offered in an epilogue, generally amount to no more than platitudes aimed at you individually, dear reader, about not sweating the small stuff, knowing thyself and thy goals, respecting difference, relinquishing control to someone else (a “choice provider”) when the time is right, and not beating oneself up for making errors (“maybe we all need to focus a little less on perfection and more on the joys of simply spending time with the people we love”). She hardly expects us to stop shopping around.

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But deep in chapter two, Iyengar makes a proposal that saves The Art of Choosing from being a simple Gladwellian knockoff. In her exceedingly cautious way, she sketches the outlines of a political position. According to this view, individual willpower constitutes only half the story; “freedom from,” or acting without restraint or interference from other people, is insufficient without “freedom to,” or possessing resources that enable one to act. Iyengar thus quietly makes the case for that most unfashionable of ideas—active government—at the middle point between capitalism and socialism. And she does so, she says, as a means to facilitate a natural predilection, evident even in well-tended but depressed zoo animals, for what she calls “true choice.” As she explains it, “true choice requires that a person have the ability to choose an option and not be prevented from choosing it by any external force, meaning that a system tending too far toward either extreme”—capitalism or socialism—“will limit people’s opportunities.” This is the same cause that, in different ways, rallies both Ben-Porath and Greenfield and suggests that a critique of the proliferation of choice can also allow for a serious reframing of liberalism and the market model.

In Tough Choices, Ben-Porath is blunter about assigning government a positive role in shaping the “landscape of choice,” even as she too charts a middle course. Nothing is more wrongheaded, the political theorist notes, than the idea that we all choose as free and equal members of society as long as government stays out of the way. On the contrary, new findings about how badly we perform in the business of decision-making—but also about how limited the choices are for some, and how aggravating an abundance of choice is for others—are cause for reassessing our attachment to liberal paradigms that unthinkingly take choice to be a virtue in and of itself. The problem, argues Ben-Porath, is that liberals still have not relinquished the discredited idea of the rational individual, left to his or her own devices, as an inherently effective and contented master of his or her own domain. If we took seriously the empirical research of psychologists like Kahneman, Tversky and Dan Ariely and accepted that “simply providing more choice does not necessarily improve individuals’ opportunities to make choices that are good for them,” we would discover that we could all do a better job of determining our preferences if we had some help.

Tough Choices is not, however, simply a brief for “libertarian paternalism,” or a fashionable defense of small-scale government programs aimed at encouraging people to want what they should want and decide what they should decide—such as whether to take an apple or a doughnut on the cafeteria line. Ben-Porath is after something bigger than merely prompting good choices by moving the apples closer to the cash register. The state is already heavily invested in the business of shaping how we choose, she explains, and minor forms of manipulation (“nudges,” in the parlance of libertarian paternalists Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler) do little to alleviate the inequality of choice conditions. A disciple of University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann and an expert in schooling, Ben-Porath argues instead for what she calls “structured paternalism,” or more extensive manipulation of the “choice architecture,” designed to put adults as well as children in a position where they can make “informed” and “meaningful” choices. What guidelines the state should follow in establishing this choice architecture remain persistently vague; Ben-Porath pushes the promotion of civic equality (equal participation in the democratic process) as well as the creation of opportunity equality (an equal chance at self-betterment)—while also insisting on safeguarding the “diverse preferences” rooted in the culture or personality of those doing the choosing. This seems a rather conflicted set of goals on which to build policy. But in the most basic of terms, Ben-Porath wants to convince us that sometimes it is a very good idea for the state to regulate or even to restrict the menu of options, as in marriage or banking, precisely so as to “allow individuals to better pursue their preferences and aspirations” or make sounder choices. This is an important formulation in and of itself.

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