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Endless Choice, Endless Discontent

A couple of summers ago we were a day away from leaving for vacation when my cell phone went missing. For a few days we looked for it passively, keeping half an eye out for it as we went about our business in the house. We tried calling it to see if we could hear the ring; I guess the battery was flat. The phone didn’t show up. So for one morning we tore the house apart, looking high and low. We couldn’t find it anywhere. All we knew was that it was last seen in the hands of Michaela, who was just a year old at the time. Finally, with our vacation looming (and a vacation that would involve 2000 miles of driving) we decided we had better give it up for lost and buy a new one.

When I was in the store and looking for a phone, I was amazed at the variety available to me. There were flip phones and sliders, MP3 phones and Blackberries. There were phones with cameras and phones with video, phones with all kinds of absurd features and the low-end phones with only the bare-bones capabilities (which, these days, still seems to include a camera and a variety of ridiculous games). I eventually decided on one of the cheaper models (though it still does all kinds of things I’ll never need it to do). And then I had to choose a phone plan. There were hundreds of plans available to me–out-of-the-box plans or, of course, plans customized just to fit my needs. Far too many, really. Each looked pretty good until I looked to the small print. One plan gave all kinds of free minutes, but only to other callers using the same network. Another provided lots of airtime but charged ugly fees for call display and call answer. And on and on. After a good hour of work I finally left the store with my new phone. I was far from certain that I had chosen the best one or the right one, but after a while I just had to choose and get out of there.

We live in a world of almost infinite choice. It wasn’t always this way, of course. Even just a few generations ago people made do with far less to choose from. But today we demand and expect that we will be able to choose from among hundreds of options. A short time ago someone sent me a short outtake from the movie Borat. I haven’t seen the movie, don’t recommend the movie and hear that it is, from all accounts, not the kind of thing Christians should see. But this clip was harmless and pointed to our ridiculous demand for choice (and Sasha Cohen’s ability to draw out a joke). Standing in a supermarket with a manager, he walks slowly alongside a refrigerator, pausing at each package of cheese and asking, “What is this?” “Cheese,” says the manager. Borat moves to the next one. “And this is…?” “Cheese.” “And this?” “Cheese.” It goes on and on and on. And then, like a typewriter hitting the end of a row, he zips back to the place he started and begins in on the next row of cheese. And the whole thing starts over.

I guess the thing is that by now society has given us just about all we need to live comfortable lives. But companies have found that they can increase profit margins by leveraging us into buying things based on marginal options. These options are not necessary or even that important. Instead, they are the optional features that few of us will ever use but all of us think we might, just perhaps, need. So we buy the camera with the extra megapixels (in case we ever want to make a print the size of a house) or the extra address book storage capacity (in case we ever have that many friends to keep track of). John Naish writes “The market for most practical products is saturated. Manufacturers used to respond to this problem by competing primarily on price, but beyond a certain point that gets too painful. So they began instead to offer more options–creating whole new wants and then supplying things to meet them.” They give us more to choose from, which gives us all the rationale we need to spend more money.

A little while ago an article in the Times discussed this very thing. Though our consumeristic mindset may beg to differ, choice, is not the key to happiness.

Everywhere you turn there is a mind-boggling parade of clothes, gadgets, financial products, holidays and entertainment. Tantalised by all these buying options, we stockpile our shopping baskets, homes and lives with ever more consumer goods that we probably don’t need or even appreciate. And this isn’t good for our happiness.

“The huge number of choices that assault us every day makes many of us feel inadequate and in some cases even clinically depressed,” says Professor Barry Schwartz, a psychologist from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and the author of The Paradox of Choice. “There is vastly too much choice in the modern world and we are paying an enormous price for it. It makes us feel helpless, mentally paralysed and profoundly dissatisfied.”

And who can claim that they haven’t felt dissatisfied after choosing from among so many options? Some time ago, with our dryer threatening to burn the house down and our washing machine refusing to spin, Aileen and I headed to the big box stores to shop for a new set. There were so many choices we didn’t know where to begin. We looked to Consumer Reports but were befuddled by the 500+ reviews of machines they list. Is the Maytag THG438447 the same as the THG438448? Is it true that 4 of the 6 brands sold at Best Buy are simply re-branded models of GE appliances? And do we really need sixteen wash settings and 247 dry settings? What’s the difference between a front-loader and a top-loader. Is there any benefit to having a glass door or does the solid door work just as well? “Professor Schwartz believes that the dogma of all Western societies – that maximising freedom and choice increases welfare-is deeply flawed. ‘It wouldn’t surprise me if eventually you’ll be able to buy a mobile phone with integral nasal-hair trimmer and creme brulee torch,’ he speculates sardonically.”

I could really use a new torch, and all the better if it integrated with my phone, my nail clippers and my iPod.

“So much choice makes decision-making increasingly complex,” says David Shanks, a psychology professor and the co-author of Straight Choices, a new book that examines how to make the best decisions when faced with a perplexing array of options. We feel bad that every time we do make a choice, it seems we are missing out on other opportunities. This makes us feel inadequate and dissatisfied with what we have chosen. Often, we feel bamboozled and just shove a familiar or prominently displayed brand into our basket. Then we feel useless because we can’t cook gourmet dinners like Jamie Oliver and don’t know what to do with any of these exotic new ingredients. So we end up buying and eating the same meals time and again.

This excess also numbs us to the heady pleasure felt by previous generations when they bought something new in an era when budgets were leaner and consumer goods in shorter supply. All we can think about now is what we still want to buy, rather than appreciating what we have.

Or perhaps instead we’re thinking about what we could have had. This new iMac I have is excellent. But maybe I should have bought the next one up–the one with the extra RAM and bigger hard drive. Or maybe I should have saved a few bucks by buying the one that is one-step down. Or…it never ends. The evidence suggests, says Professor Leppe, that we thrive when we have less choice. “Excess choice is paralysis rather than liberation.” “‘It challenges a lot of our beliefs, but it could just be that choice within constraints will make us feel a lot better,’ says Professor Schwartz. ‘We need to live in the moment, appreciate what we have and not think about all the other things that we could choose instead.’”

Even better, we need to live with an eye to the future. We can pile up all the stuff we want here on earth, but we can’t take it with us. But we could still live our lives miserable, always wondering what could have been. The endless choice we face may be the mark of our culture’s prosperity but the evidence is proving that it just makes us miserable. It seems to me that endless choice makes for endless discontent.

Stay tuned. I will continue this article on Friday (after a brief pause on Thursday to begin reading our next classic of the faith together).

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