Professor Renata Saleci’s recent talk at the RSA is a useful addition to the literature on choice, part of the RSA Animate series.
She views choice sceptically – as reflected in the title of her recent book The Tyranny of Choice. Hers is a Marxist interpretation of how consumerism has influenced how we live our lives:
“The idea of choosing who we want to be and the imperative to ‘become yourself’ have begun to work against us, making us more anxious and more acquisitive rather than giving us more freedom..”
Her argument relies on evidence demonstrating choice is both paralysing and anxiety provoking. She describes choice has as having three characteristics:
- We don’t choose in isolation – we often choose what other people are choosing and can become fixated on how others will judge us by our choices
- When choosing we try to make the ideal choice – and end up dissatisfied
- Every choice always involves loss – the alternative(s) foregone
The first point she brings to life describing the false empowerment of choice. We all get to create our own identity nowadays. When you are faced with abundant choice about how to live your life you feel it’s your fault if you do not achieve success or feel actualised.
Prof Saleci also describes how norms have changed within society. A woman might spend 10 years deciding the ideal time to have children whereas our parent’s generation just got on with it. Indeed, life post-adolescence and pre-adulthood is a new lifestage – what David Brooks of the New York Times calls the Odyssey Years a “decade of wandering” where we try on new identities to see which one fits.
Prof Saleci’s argument runs parallel to Barry Schwartz’s work on the paradox of choice. The explosion in choice in western industrial societies means not only is it harder to make a decision, but it leads to us having higher expectations and ending up less satisfied:
“..the more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose.”
He correlates this explosion of choice with poorer mental health. Choice is bad for us:
“…clinical depression has exploded in the industrial world in the last generation. …people have experiences that are disappointing because their standards are so high. And then when they have to explain these experiences to themselves, they think they’re at fault. And so the net result is that we do better in general, objectively, and we feel worse.”
He acknowledges the gains consumer choice have given us, but thinks the costs started outweighing the benefits years ago and yearns to return to a time when there were fewer choices – back to when was actually possible for people to have experiences that were a pleasant surprise.
More unintended consequences
Information made available via technology empowers but it can also overwhelm. Teacher Jamie McKenzie calls this the poverty of abundance:
“The Web offers so much information that students may find themselves effectively starved and frustrated, lost and overwhelmed… Unless they can find the image or the document they need, the heaps of material may serve to obscure rather than reveal or illuminate.”
Shifting perspective to think about music and how it surrounds us, another unforeseen consequence is emotional blunting. We live in a musically overburdened culture as Sukhdev Sandhu points out:
“…pop, usually in the form of anorexically thin MP3 sound, is everywhere these days. Perhaps that ubiquity puts a brake on its ability to astound or shape-shift. Perhaps the process of circulating and accessing music has become more exciting than the practice of listening to it.”
Capitalism, progressing to its logical extent, has brought us to the point where we have oversupply in every category. Any consumer product is likely to be pretty good. As Mark Earls points out in Herd:
“..it’s 10 years since JD Power revealed that there is no such thing as a bad car; they’re all good.”
The consumer response
People know this. Whilst initial reactions to new products are often positive, on reflection many realise that product innovation is often about squeezing more cash out of them rather than giving them something better. Many consumers I speak to have coping mechanisms to help them deal with this excess of choice, which they refer to explicitly and implicitly.
Time limiters – those who willingly accept consumer choices, but who deliberately allot a period of time to make the best decision possible – and then move on.
Choice minimisers – those who find choosing a pain and deliberately limit the number of choices that have to be made.
Life simplifiers – those yearning for a simpler existence in every regard. ‘Do less but experience more’.