John Spevak: More choices might not be better

By John SpevakJuly 25, 2014 

Is more better? If you watch television and Internet advertisements, the answer seems to be yes indeed. The ads encourage us to desire more things and yearn for more choices.

But Barry Schwartz, the author of a book I recently purchased at Phoenix Books, “The Paradox of Choice,” writes that more, especially more choices, can be worse. And I agree with him.

Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, believes that in today’s world we have so many choices we often feel overwhelmed.

He points out that if we are confronted with too many choices we can become paralyzed with inaction. Schwartz gives many examples of formidable choices in his book. In shopping at his local supermarket, for example, he noted 285 varieties of cookies and 230 different soups.

With all those choices, customers often either move on to the next aisle or select the same brand they regularly purchase.

Schwartz concludes, based on his research in many areas, that humans find it easier to make decisions if the choices number no more than seven. Confronted with more than seven, especially if the choices go to into dozens of possibilities, a person will usually postpone making a selection, sometimes indefinitely.

He gives the example of employees in different companies presented with various retirement plans from which to choose. The employees with fewer than seven options could make their choice relatively quickly. Those with dozens of options would generally keep postponing their decision, sometimes missing the selection deadline.

I understand what Schwartz is saying. Life’s choices can be complex and overwhelming. I’d rather, if possible, keep things simple. Living a life of simplicity, as many psychologists, philosophers, and spiritual writers have said, not only reduces stress but increases well-being.

I was reminded of today’s complexity of choices when I made a purchase the other day. I don’t buy clothes very often (I feel the ones I have are fine, regardless of what may be trendy), but I needed to buy a pair of jeans. I was primed for a potentially stressful situation after reading Schwartz’s account of his own shopping for jeans. He was struck by how many options he had: relaxed fit, slim fit, skinny, boot cut, flare cut, straight cut, wide leg, high rise, low rise, etc.

When I walked into our local J.C. Penney’s store, I experienced exactly what Schwartz did. Fortunately I found a label in my size that said “regular.” I grabbed those jeans, headed for the cash register, and was out the door in less than eight minutes, my self-allotted maximum time for clothes shopping. When I arrived home I tried on the jeans they fit fine.

I gradually realized I’m confronted with many more choices than I need each day, not only in grocery and clothing stores but also in entertainment and technology. Deciding on what television program to watch today is a chore. When I was a kid, I had four choices – the three network affiliates and one local station, all of which could be accessed with a rabbit-ears antenna. Making a decision on a program for a given time slot wasn’t that hard.

Now with my cable service I have about 300 channels from which to choose. When I try to scan all those channels, my mind gets weary and my eyes get bleary. I could mention, like Schwartz, many other places of quasi-infinite choice, including dozens of cell phone features, hundreds of “apps” and thousands of internet sites. Yikes!

Neither Schwartz nor I are against having choices. That’s the American way. But like Schwartz, I have to caution myself about being overwhelmed by choices. And I need to remind myself that no choice is perfect. Buyers almost always have remorse. The more choices we have, the greater the chance that after making a selection we’ll think we could have done better.

That feeling can be overcome, regardless of how many choices available, if we realize it’s not “things” that ultimately bring happiness.

Joy and satisfaction seem to come when we appreciate the simple things in our lives which we can’t buy and don’t necessarily choose, like sunrises, sunsets, cool breezes, laughter, friendship and love.

Comments on the writings of John Spevak, a California Newspaper Publishers Association Blue Ribbon Finalist for 2013, are encouraged, and can be sent to john.spevak@gmail.com.

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