The tyranny of choice?

As the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize. Psychologist Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice.

Economics is all about how people make choices. Sociology is all about why they don’t have any choices to make.  James S. Duesenberry, U.S. economist

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin? From Trainspotting


In our lives we are constantly making choices- these choices go from the banal to the life-changing. The word choice has become ubiquitous in the modern world. If you go a modern American supermarket you can choose between 50,000 different products. Amazon gives every town a bookshop with over 2 million titles. Starbucks claims that they offer 87,000 drink combinations. But choice goes much further than these examples; in this postmodern world some claim that we can now construct our very identities, including  our sexuality, gender and class.

 It is in economics where the idea of choice really comes into its own. Robert Mundell, a Nobel-prize winning economist, defined modern economics as ‘the science of choice.” Indeed, for economists choice is the quintessential anthropological act. They tend to believe that it is good and the more you have the better. Giving buyers more choice means more competition, which lowers prices, raises quality and promotes innovation. In the end, workers’ productivity increases, consumers are better off and the economy grows and becomes more efficient. The dominant behavioural theory in modern economic analysis is rational choice. Homo Economicus is seen as a reasoning actor who evaluates means and ends, costs and benefits in order to make a rational choice.

While for many this choice is a positive thing, it has also attracted criticisms. The idea that capitalism offers too many choices probably goes back to Karl Marx. And in the last ten years there have been a plethora of books which have set out to criticise “the tyranny of choice.” I am going to look at two representative examples of this phenomenon: Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice and Renata Salecl’s Choice. What criticisms do these authors make? They believe that all this choice provokes anxiety in people. One study that is often cited is When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing? This is a study of gourmet jams carried out by Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper from Columbia and Stanford universities respectively. The experiments were carried out both in the lab and at luxury food store in Menlo Park. The researchers set out tables offering either six or 24 samples of jam. More shoppers would go to the table with 24 flavours but only 3% actually bought jam. On the other hand 30% of those who visited the stall which offered less variety bought some jam. They were just intimidated by too much choice. This is known as consumer vertigo. In the opening chapter of The Paradox of Choice Schwartz describes the traumatic  experience buying jeans at The Gap. In the past buying jeans had been a five-minute task. All you needed to know was waist size and length. Now Schwartz was confronted with five fit choices in every size: slim, easy, relaxed, baggy, and extra-baggy. All this was too much for the hapless Schwartz:

“… it was a complex decision in which I was forced to invest time, energy, and no small amount of self-doubt, anxiety, and dread.”  Life is just so hard sometimes.

Salecl, who was married to fellow Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, argues that individual choices are rarely rational, being mediated by our unconscious and ultimately insatiable desires.  Like Schwarz she sees choice as an anxiety-creator. In particular she focuses on how we can be ridiculed if we make the “wrong” choice. She notes the parallels between our search for a mate and how we look for a telephone company: constant switching, followed by the feeling that we may have missed a better deal once we’ve made our choice. Ultimately we are powerless to make the really fundamental choices – the choice to reject the consumerist, individualist model altogether.

As a libertarian I am sceptical about these arguments. Firstly I think that we are capable of negotiating these options. If people are so overwhelmed by choice, how come superstores are so popular with the public? Maybe we have just been fooled by the marketers but I think we do enjoy variety. We may be irrational sometimes but that doesn’t mean we should have the government tell us what we should do. Are there too many newspapers? Too many books? Too many websites? The problem is who decides which choices should be eliminated. It all seems so wasteful but of course as we saw in my post last week the Soviet Union was also probably more wasteful of resources. Salecl talks about questioning the system but it depends on the alternative she is proposing. Will it be better than the current one?

Of course there are difficulties in making decisions but we are capable of habituating ourselves to this environment. We can get help from newspapers, magazines, online or from family and friends. I have never enjoyed buying clothes but I’m sure our current teenagers have no problems buying a pair of jeans. Anyway, we can always decide to maintain the status quo. Options are valuable, even when not exercised. I am still with Telefónica although there are now many other providers. I benefit from the competition, which keeps the former monopoly on its toes.

I love the new distribution models described by Chris Anderson in his book The Long Tail. Instead of being able to buy a limited number of items, we now have a huge number sold in relatively small quantities, which allows for incredible personalisation. Bruce Springsteen talked about 57 channels and nothing on but the Boss was wrong. American television is now living a golden age. Does the choice on the Internet really create anxiety? I prefer to focus on the positive aspects.

Whenever you make a choice, there exists the possibility that you will get it wrong. And those mistakes can prove very costly. There are opportunity costs in making choices because we dispose of scarce resources. That is the nature of human life. But would we better off if our marriages were arranged or the only car you could buy was a Trabant? Of course having loads of choices doesn’t guarantee our happiness. But it’s not the state’s job to make us happy. That is up to us. Just pursuing material well-being is unlikely to bring us contentment. We need to know who we are and what we want from life. I will finish with this quote from Virginia Postrel:

Ultimately, the debate about choice is not about markets but about character. Liberty and responsibility really do go together; it’s not just a platitude. The more freedom we have to control our lives, the more responsibility we have for how they turn out. In a world of constraints, learning to be happy with what you’re given is a virtue. In a world of choices, virtue comes from learning to make commitments without regrets. And commitment, in turn, requires self-confidence and self-knowledge.



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