Spoilt For Choice: Stark Reality of the Modern World

Posted on May 30, 2012 in Society

By Tarun Cherukuri:

Noted Psychologist Barry Schwartz highlights the paradox of choice of our times. He cites that modernity has provided an explosion of choice in two different respects. First, in areas of life in which people have always had choice, the number of options available to them has exploded. Second, in areas of life in which there was little or no choice, significant options have now appeared.

Consider this example from the U.S from a large super market store — 165 varieties of “juice drinks”, 360 types of shampoos, 275 varieties of cereals! A typical American supermarket carries more than 30,000 items. More than 20,000 items hit the shelf every new year. It is safe to assume that we in India are getting there and our hyper markets would have items surely in the order of magnitude of thousands.

In areas where our parents had little choice for e.g. like mobile communications, insurance and medical care, choice has grown to significant proportions.

We have more choice, and presumably more freedom and autonomy, and self-determination, than ever before. You would assume that this increased choice must improve well-being. This is, in fact, the standard line among social scientists who study choice. They argue that increased choice makes the society better off. Those who want them will benefit, and those who don’t always have the choice of ignoring. Though this seems logically compelling, it is empirically not true as proved by many studies.

What assessments of well-being suggest is that close social relations are the main determinant of happiness. There seems to be this underlying transition at work in our cities as well. We are slowing moving from the personalized mom-and-pop store in which the bhaiya or chacha/chachi or didi always knew what your family wanted. And they would invariably keep you posted about the best offers up for grabs. Choice was much simpler. You picked your core items and any indecision on the margin, you had some reliable to seek information from a person you trusted.

Contrast that with our hyper markets. Sure they provide you a wonderful shopping experience for your family. The hyper malls have got bigger, swankier and all encompassing. They also offer you cheap shopping days or bumper bonanzas on all items from salt to software. But do we really know what we want amidst the plethora of choices the super markets offer us? During my levers experience, it was found that a super market shopper took on average 5 seconds to make a shopping choice. Think about it for a second, do we really flip the product and care to read the nutrition or other bylines at the back of the packaging in 5 seconds?

If we were unsure, are we really confident of getting trustworthy advice? What is in it for an electronic executive to give you the best deal when he/she is unlikely to have repeated exchange with you once again? In our quest for the best option, we are more likely to be prone to regret. We are more likely to discover someone in our network who made a better choice. With nobody personal to blame, we shoulder the blame for the choices we make. In a world of increased choice, we have engineered ourselves more emotional instability or if I dare say, neuroticism.

Many centuries after Buddha and a few decades after Gandhiji, the messages they left us with are becoming even more relevant. A fulfilling life is one of moderation — filled with simple living and higher order thinking. Is anyone listening?