If You Think Having Too Many Choices Is Tyranny, Wait Until You Have Too Few

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A quarter-century ago, it was Walmart, Borders and Barnes & Noble bookstores, and a few other bricks-and-mortar retailers that touched off panics over “the tyranny of choice.” Too many flavors of Pop Tarts, don’t you know, was the new slavery, paralyzing us mere homo sapiens, who had evolved really only to choose between strawberry, blueberry, and brown-sugar cinnamon (either with or without frosting). Suddenly the breakfast aisle was overflowing with a few dozen types of breakfast pastries and we just couldn’t deal with it. “Choice no longer liberates,” wrote psychologist Barry Schwartz in a 2004 best-seller called The Paradox of Choice, “but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.”

Unsurprisingly, the same basic argument migrated frictionlessly into cyberspace, where the Long Tail wags us all near to death. When faced with such plenitude, who can decide? Here’s the latest, steaming-hot iteration of that basic take, courtesy of Amanda Mull of The Atlantic. “There Is Too Much Stuff,” reads the article’s headline, neatly summarizing its argument. “The human brain can’t contend with the vastness of online shopping,” insists the sub-headline. A search for clothing hangers at the online retailer Amazon, writes Mull, yields over 200,000 options, which are too many to sift through, proving that “contemporary internet shopping conjures a perfect storm of choice anxiety.” Even as she grants that it’s “tempting” to see more choice and variety as “advantageous to consumers,” she concludes that “infinite, meaningless options can result in something like a consumer fugue state” and that “after shopping online, I often don’t remember days later whether I actually made a decision.” She links to a 2010 New York Times story that recounts a famous 1995 experiment involving displays of jam flavors in supermarkets. The researchers found that customers bought more jams when they were offered six flavors rather than 24 flavors. “Having ‘too much’ choice seems…to have hampered their later motivation to buy,” they concluded.

Talk about your First World problems! So what is to be done? Should we limit consumer choices to help our mental health? But then we’d buy more, right, if the jam experiment is true and can be universalized to other goods and services? That doesn’t seem to be what Mull or The Atlantic is after; each exudes an unambiguously anti-consumerist vibe.

Discussing the jam experiment in a 2005 Reason story, Virginia Postrel drew different lessons. The larger display may have drawn different sorts of customers (such as herself) who don’t buy jam but were surprised or delighted by the range of choices. Postrel pointed to a related experiment by the same researchers, one in which they asked people to choose from a smaller or bigger variety of chocolates. The people faced with more choices said it was frustrating and annoying to have so many choices but also that the act of choosing was enjoyable. Go figure.

“Knowing we may regret any particular decision,” wrote Postrel, “sometimes we simply won’t choose.” At the same time, we come up with ways to structure or limit our choices so we aren’t overwhelmed during each and every trip to the grocery store. We actually do a pretty good job, Postrel explained, of limiting our choices so that we don’t drive ourselves crazy or slip into paralysis. We keep going to the same restaurants and ordering the same dishes. We limit the number of stores or sites we look at while scoping out a new purchase. We rely on reviews and guides that we come to trust through experience. But the anti-choicers aren’t comfortable with these heuristics. From Postrel again:

At the heart of the anti-choice argument is a false dichotomy: We can have a narrow range of standardized choices, or we can live with options that are infinite, dizzying, and always open.

[Barry] Schwartz treats commitment as the opposite of choice rather than its complement. By this logic, a market without contracts is freer than one in which contracts are enforced. After all, what if I sell you my car and then change my mind and want it back?

“Social ties actually decrease freedom, choice, and autonomy,” he writes. “Marriage, for example, is a commitment to a particular other person that curtails freedom of choice in sexual and even emotional partners.” So gays who cannot legally marry their partners are somehow freer than heterosexuals who can? There’s something deeply wrong with this understanding of choice. Freedom to choose must include the freedom to commit.

Which brings me to a larger problem embedded in anti-choice arguments of the sort made by Mull. It’s easy to mock the idea of 200,000 types of hangers (or, close enough, 200,000 search results at Amazon). Who needs that many hangers, right, or 24 flavors of jam, or … anything else that I don’t particularly care about? Why do we have so many types of music, or of eggplants, or nail polish?

I’d argue that the social-economic-political system that generates such a proliferation of choices in seemingly banal consumer goods also does the same when it comes to other choices in our lives that are arguably more central to our flourishing and self-expression—things such as sexual orientation, religion, personal dress, race, and ethnicity. You don’t get 58 gender choices on Facebook without having to put up with a near-equal number of Pop Tarts. A liberal order predicated upon individual rights, tolerance, and pluralism is going to generate a ton of SKUs in shit that you and I may not care about. That’s not a problem to be solved, it’s a dynamic to be defended and expanded to all aspects of human activity. “Choosing determines all human action,” pronounced the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises.

In making his choice, man chooses not only between various materials and services. All human values are offered for option. All ends and all means, both material and ideal issues, the sublime and the base, the noble and the ignoble, are ranged in a single row and subjected to a decision which picks out one thing and sets aside another.

Choosing among competing options isn’t easy, but it beats the alternative, which is being denied alternatives not just when it comes to hangers but to all parts of life.


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