An overwhelming abundance
More choice can lead to more dissatisfaction, but equitably distributing resources can improve the lives of those with too little, as well as those with too much.
Tuesday, September 28, 2010 - 23:22
YOGURT TO INFINITY: An overabundance of choice can lead to increased expectations and ultimately paralysis and dissatisfaction. (Photo: Chris Tittle)
I don't know about you, but I love wondering through grocery stores. The sights, the smells, the sounds, even the tastes (my girlfriend knows the location of those little tasting booths in all our local grocery stores by heart). All the luscious, colorful vegetables and fruits, fresh baked goods steaming in their trays, the cool air of the refrigerated sections.
So many beautiful choices!
Yes, an overwhelming abundance of choice. On my most recent trip to the grocery store to pick up a few stable goods, it took me nearly one hour to buy everything on my list. And I only ended up getting seven items. As much as I love wandering through grocery stores, I've come to realize that I don't particularly enjoy shopping at grocery stores. Looking at all the pretty colors and options can be visually pleasing, but trying to decide which option to actually buy can be a bit stressful.
With so many options available (hundreds of different types of yogurt, for example), our expectations are dramatically increased. Why, with so many kinds of yogurt, surely one of them is the perfect one, right?! But after leaving the grocery store with everything on my list the other night, I couldn't shake this very peculiar sensation of having failed. Maybe there had been a better box of cereal that I didn't see!
It took me some time to identify why I had this creeping feeling of dissatisfaction, but eventually I remembered a very thought-provoking TED talk on the paradox of choice, presented by psychologist Barry Schwartz. In this presentation, he argues that the "official dogma" of industrialized Western society — the best way to maximize freedom, and thus wellbeing, is by maximizing choice — actually creates an illusory expectation of perfection that can never be attained.
Far from increasing our wellbeing through freedom, this oversaturation of products and services ultimately increases dissatisfaction by creating an unreasonable expectation of perfection. And because it's ultimately YOU who is making the choice, YOU are then responsible for the outcome. The burden is shifted from those providing the services or products to the individual who must make the right choice.
The ultimate significance of this argument is not that choice is inherently bad, but that our industrialized society produces and demands far more than is necessary or even helpful to live happily. Before actually walking into an overwhelmingly large supermarket when I just want a container of yogurt, I have the choice of which supermarket I go to. I am extremely lucky to have three health-conscious supermarkets within a one-mile radius of my apartment in Pittsburgh (Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Market District), which might serve as an example of a proper balance of choice. I am not limited to the one mega-supermarket with miles of aisles of processed food and very little fresh produce.
However, in the larger context, this paradox of choice points to an inequitable distribution of resources. As Schwartz points out, this problem is most pronounced in the industrialized world. In fact, most of the world's 6 billion people probably still suffer from a lack of choice, with over a billion living in abject poverty. But as the most recent poverty statistics show, there are still many, even in the U.S., who lack access to sufficient resources. Schwarz concludes with a very pertinent observation: redistributing these resources (not just producing more) will not only help those without any choices, but also those of us with too many.