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The Tyranny of Too Many Choices

  • 2010 18 Oct
The Tyranny of Too Many Choices

A perfectly orchestrated backyard party took an ugly turn as the bounce house emptied of all 15 little friends who were joined by twice as many adults gathered around to watch the 5-year old open a mountain of gifts. At that moment the birthday girl melted into a puddle of tears.

Little Emily's embarrassed parents threatened punishment if she didn't "stop right now!" which only made things worse. She ran to her room and slammed the door.
I'm sure a child psychologist would have had a field day citing poor parenting skills, hidden anger, deep-seated fear or some form of attention deficit. I saw it as much less complicated. Emily was the victim of too many choices. I know, because I feel the same way when I go into a supermarket or try to determine which cell-phone plan is the best. When I have too many choices my brain goes into overload and then it just stalls out. I cannot make a decision and all I want to do is to run to my room and slam the door!
In his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, (Harper, 2005) author Barry Schwartz says that freedom and individual choice have a downside. "As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded," he writes. "At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize."
Recently, I attempted to count the number of choices in the cookie aisle at the supermarket in my neighborhood. When I hit triple digits I stopped. That makes me crazy! How can I expect to make the right choice when I have so many choices? Schwartz says so many choices may be a sign that commercial capitalism is bad for us. Several, not hundreds, of choices would give us the freedom to show our individuality without pushing us into the maddening dilemma of having to make the perfect choice.
Fortunately, I've discovered ways to escape the tyranny of too many choices. I stay away from places known for an abundance of choice. I depend on experts to narrow the possibilities to a number I can manage easily.
I avoid shopping malls, preferring warehouse clubs. Their merchandising buyers reduce my choices from hundreds to just one or two. I can deal with that.
Manufacturer's coupons narrow my choices considerably in the grocery store. I create a list based on items that are on sale and for which I have a coupon. My choices are made for me long before I walk through the door.
In addition, researching publications like Consumer Reports in the quiet of my office helps me to narrow my choices for a variety of items before I ever leave home.
If they'd asked me, I would have suggested that Emily's parents move the mountain of gifts to another location, bringing out just one or two gifts at a time. Or better yet, scale the party down to just a few friends to avoid being overwhelmed by too much of a good thing.
October 18, 2010

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