Friday, December 24, 2010

Choosing Not To Choose

Can less choice make us happier?  I think so, at least in certain contexts.  Lately I’ve been trying to avoid making food choices.  If we go out to eat, I let someone else decide where and then order what they choose; at home, I eat what is laid out.  Since I spend all day making decisions, I find I’m happier making fewer choices in my free time.

And it is not just with food.  I think we would be more content, and have more leisure time, if we didn’t have to manage the dizzying array of choices we make all day, every day.  A recent essay on “choice” in The Economist ( ) notes that PepsiCo makes 20 different varieties of Tropicana orange juice alone.  Add in the other brands and their own variations, and just selecting the right juice for one’s tastes and pocketbook is almost overwhelming.  And we haven’t even gotten to the cereal aisle yet.   

It’s just too much.  That same Economist article notes that when Procter & Gamble reduced the varieties of Head & Shoulders shampoo (from 26 to 15) sales increased by 10%.  We average consumers don’t have the time or inclination to research and compare every product category—but that is what it would take to make the best choices, and so the plethora of choice constantly reminds us that we are probably not making optimal decisions a lot of the time.

A growing body of psychological research (from folks like Sheena Iyengar, Mark Lepper, and Barry Schwarz) find that satisfaction with a purchase (of jams, chocolates, and pension plans) decreases with the breadth of variety offered.  As Barry Schwarz notes, too much choice can debilitate and even tyrannize. 
At the same time, there is a deep skepticism and fear in U.S. popular discourse over taking away choice—especially having the government reduce individual choice.  Certainly, we should tread lightly where individual liberty is concerned.  Yet, the tone lately has been especially shrill, with Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and a growing chorus issuing dire warnings about the government stealing our freedoms, taking away choices, and the creeping socialist menace that represents.  Palin has attacked new student nutrition guidelines as a “school cookie ban.”  Beck warns that the Obama administration believes that “you’re incapable of making decisions” and (mis)reports on bans on soda and week-long detentions for eating a single Jolly Rancher.  (See Judith Warner’s essay in the NY Times Magazineat )

Protecting individual liberties against the state has a long and (mostly) illustrious history in the United States, as we are reminded, none too subtly, by the guiding analogies of tea party politics.

And choice is hard to argue against.  It is an expression of freedom, of liberty, of free will and self-determination.  More choice = more freedom.  Who could argue against that?

Yet, we must allow two big caveats.  First, our choices almost always impact others, and, living in a society as we do, we have to make allowances for others.  As economist Bob Frank has argued (discussed below), we must take into account the wide-ranging impacts (“externalities”) our decisions have when marking the boundary between individual liberty and government regulation.  Second, we are so overwhelmed with choices, choices with complex implications, that we often need help with our choices. Brand names and various labeling regimes help.  We rely especially on government evaluations in major purchases (of cars, for example, with safety, mileage, and other comparables). Or, take health insurance.  Those of us fortunate enough to have company provided insurance already have had our choices narrowed by HR folks.  Even then, the differences in my options are always complicated and opaque, and so I do whatever my friend Joseph does (since I trust his judgment and know that he researches such things).  

Personally, I think I would be much happier and relaxed if I had to make even fewer choices.  That doesn’t mean I want socialist style stores—long lines and little choice.  But I would like my choices better curated for me—by shopkeeps, producers, employers, friends, whomever, as long as they can be trusted.   

The trick, as always, is to safeguard the collective good while maximizing individual freedom.  It is a delicate balance.  But more choice does not automatically mean more freedom.

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