The Tyranny of too much choice.
An article in Scientific American, titled The Tyranny of Choice has sparked a considerable debate on the web about the problems faced by western societies as a result of too much choice. In fact the idea is a very old one, I came cross it years ago but it is not mentioned very often by your every day Happiness literature which tends to talk more about internal changes that people can make to the way they think rather than factors from their external environment.
You can sum up the material prior to this article as follows:
- The intent of advertising is to make us dissatisfied with what we have
- If we meet people who have more than we have, or have different spending priorities or saving priorities then we tend to be dissatisfied with what we have
These two factors are the main environmental factors that effect happiness. In my experience they are even more powerful than having somewhere warm and dry to live and enough food to eat, which I soon got used to. However some people disagree with this and consider these to be essential, (Hygiene factors in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
This new article extends the model a bit with the following concepts:
- Too much choice can be a bad thing
- Especially if when faced with a choice you spend a lot of time and energy of assessing the options and agonising over them. This is a particular problem now days with the popularity of “what xxx” type magazines and the Internet which:
- Exposes us to ever increasing choice
- Provides access to a huge amount of information on each option
- Provides access to a huge amount of often conflicting opinion about each option
- Even worse if when you finally make a decision you then continue to expose yourself to options and opinions that may change the choice you made and lead to dissatisfaction. In fact this can easily happen anyway because often the way that tradeoffs are prioritised when making a decision then change once the decision has been taken and real life experience refines or overturns them
- These factors are compounded with easy credit which does not provide a natural limit on peoples capacity to dream and plan to acquire things.
I don’t want to repeat the article, but it’s worth mentioning that it identifies different personality types who are affected by the above to a greater or lesser extent.
There are a few articles that discuss this topic in more detail and I have provided a few of the links here:
- Decisions, decisions … the right choice isn’t always the best
- Making The Right Choice
- Studies associate decreased happiness with explosion of options
Worth repeating is a great quote by the great physicist Richard Feynman, who when faced with the dessert menu in restaurants always chose the chocolate option. As Feynman saw it, while the other desserts might be better, they might not be. On the other hand, the chocolate option was always pretty acceptable – so why fret for ages over making a choice that might be wrong anyway?
In many ways Richards approach mirrors my own, I am happiest and most at ease when I am doing simple familiar things, that I don’t have to think about, but which I know I enjoy. When faced with the option to do something different I will often avoid it to reduce the risk that I won’t enjoy it, rather than take the risk that I will enjoy it more. However when faced with choice I definitely suffer from the problems described here. Read my blog entry about choosing a new PDA for an example.