Consumer Vertigo

A new wave of social critics claim that freedom's just another word for way too much to choose. Here's why they're wrong.

When customers enter the Ralphs supermarket near UCLA, they see a sign announcing how many different fruits and vegetables the produce department has on hand: "724 produce varieties available today," it says, including 93 organic selections.

Sixty dozen varieties is a mind-boggling number. And that's just in the produce department. Over in the cheese section, this pretty run-of-the-mill supermarket offers 14 types of feta alone. Not so long ago, finding feta of any type required a trip to a specialty shop.

During the last couple of decades, the American economy has undergone a variety revolution. Instead of simply offering mass-market goods, businesses of all sorts increasingly compete to give consumers more personalized products, more varied experiences, and more choice.

Average Americans order nonfat decaf iced vanilla lattes at Starbucks and choose from 1,500 drawer pulls at The Great Indoors. Amazon gives every town a bookstore with 2 million titles, while Netflix promises 35,000 different movies on DVD. Choice is everywhere, liberating to some but to others a new source of stress. "Stand in the corner of the toothpaste aisle with your eyes wide open and--I swear--it will make you dizzy," writes design critic Karrie Jacobs. Maybe the sign in Ralphs is not an enticement but a warning.

The proliferation of choices goes well beyond groceries to our most significant personal decisions. Young, well-educated adults in particular have unprecedented freedom to make whatever they want of their lives: to decide where to live, what to do, whom to befriend, whom (or whether) to marry.

"Since graduation, we've struggled to make our own happiness," Jenny Norenberg, a young lawyer, writes in Newsweek. "It seems that having so many choices has sometimes overwhelmed us. In the seven years since I left home for college, I've had 13 addresses and lived in six cities. How can I stay with one person, at one job, in one city, when I have the world at my fingertips?"

It's all too much, declares the latest line of social criticism. Americans are facing a crisis of choice. We're increasingly unhappy, riddled with anxiety and regret, because we have so much freedom to decide what to do with our money and our lives. Some choice may be good, but we've gone over the limit. The result is The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, the title of Yale political scientist Robert Lane's 2000 book on the subject.

To these critics, providing too many choices is the latest way liberal societies in general, and markets in particular, make people miserable. "Choices proliferate beyond our pleasure in choosing and our capacity to handle the choices," writes Lane. Like cheap food and sedentary labor, the argument goes, abundant choice is not something human beings are biologically evolved to cope with. We'd be better off with fewer decisions to make.

"As the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear," writes Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice, published in January 2004. "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."

Schwartz's book has become a touchstone, not just for social critics but for self-help gurus and marketing professionals looking for the Next Big Thing. Its argument also offers a scientific-seeming alternative to public policies that expand choice, notably in health care and retirement accounts.

Schwartz, writes Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby in an article on private Social Security accounts, "shows how a certain measure of choice can be liberating but how too much is a treadmill--sometimes even triggering depression. Freedom and choice are wonderful things that allow us to realize our human potential. But there's a limit to how many choices each of us has time to make, and most people in the rich world are pretty much maxed out already."

In his opening chapter, Schwartz recounts his troubles buying jeans at The Gap. What used to be a five-minute task requiring no more information than a waist size and length now demands multiple decisions and an unnerving amount of self-awareness. What leg shape and denim wash say "Barry Schwartz"? What shape is his body really? "Finally, I chose the easy fit, because a 'relaxed fit' implied that I was getting soft in the middle and needed to cover it up," he writes.

Schwartz acknowledges that offering more styles and fits is good "for customers with varied tastes and body types," but he discounts their interests. Ill-fitting jeans are a small price to pay for simplicity, he suggests. The Gap's many choices, he says, have made buying jeans "a complex decision in which I was forced to invest time, energy, and no small amount of self-doubt, anxiety, and dread." In the words of a Glamour editorial that cites Schwartz, "It's enough to give even the most pro-choice girl one big headache."

Like most culturally successful social criticism, the anti-choice critique starts with what strikes most people as an obvious truth: Too many options can be overwhelming. At some point, most shoppers have experienced Karrie Jacobs' consumer vertigo.

People are in fact less likely to make a decision when they face too many alternatives. In a now-famous experiment, recounted in Schwartz's book, researchers set up a table at a specialty food store, offering samples of jam. Customers could try as many flavors as they wanted. After tasting the jam, they got a coupon for $1.00 off a jar of any flavor. Half the time the sample table offered six flavors, and half the time it offered 24.

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    You may be right but for me the marketing of false choices is crazy making.

    My example: I take the responsibility upon myself to buy a router with WiFi. At the Best Buy or on the Tiger.com (or the Amazon.com) I inquire "which is better L*****s or N*****r?". Now, I know that the 802.11abgn radio for both is either an Atheros or a Broadcom IC and in compliance with spectrum license throughout the globe. But Ms. Best Buy and Mr. Tiger.com not only do not know what I know - they do not know that they do not know that I know what they do not know.

    So perforce - I become crazy from being forced to make an irresponsible and irrational purchase decision. From too many choices. But at the end of the day - I have a fine wireless office to navigate the series of tubes and write reasonable posts to Reason.

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