“We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.” ~ Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Contrary to popular expectations, adding options to a particular choice leads to diminishing returns. And even in America, land of the free and home of democracy, political choices are often anything but free.
It is commonly believed, especially in American society, that freedom of choice is a good thing, and the more choice the better. The more options exist, the more we get to exercise our capacities as free and rational beings, and the better chance we have of picking an option that will satisfy our desires.
Psychologist Barry Schwartz begs to differ and does so at length in his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. More choice is better only to a degree, argues Schwartz, and there comes a point at which too many options prove detrimental to prosperity and happiness. In a 2005 TED Talk, he summarizes three arguments against an overabundance of choice.
To start, Schwartz points out that the vast majority of people lack the knowledge and experience to make technical decisions. Say your doctor diagnoses you with a rare disease and informs you of treatment options A and B. Treatment A has certain benefits and side effects; treatment B has slightly different benefits and side effects. But even hearing your doctor describe these pros and cons doesn’t put you in a great position to make an educated decision. In fact, you could probably get an optimal outcome if the doctor simply prescribed one treatment as the best course of action. A similar scenario applies when you hire a plumber or bring your car to the mechanic.
Furthermore, an excess of options can lead to the famous analysis paralysis. In his talk, Schwartz cites a study of a company offering 401(k)-style retirement plans to its employees. For every ten mutual funds the employer offered, participation in the retirement plans decreased by up to two percent. So if seventy-five out of 100 employees would participate when five funds were offered, about sixty-five employees would participate if fifty funds were offered. It seems some employees struggled so much to decide which mutual fund was best that they opted not to choose any fund at all.
Finally, once people do choose from among many options, they are less satisfied with the outcome. If you had fifty mutual funds to choose from and your portfolio doesn’t rise quite as fast as you suspect another one might, you’d start to wonder how thoroughly you analyzed your options. With fifty funds to choose from, you had damn well be able to pick the best one! Implicit in this excess of choice is the knowledge that, with so many available options, you are ultimately responsible for the outcome. If your employer simply assigned one retirement plan option, you could blame your employer’s shortsightedness when your portfolio tanked. When you are in control, you have only yourself to blame.
A key point from Schwartz’s research is that once you make a choice, you are stuck with it. Even if you do somehow manage to change options, you’ll have already wasted some amount of time pursuing your original choice. These sunk opportunity costs become very apparent in the world of entertainment, especially if you’re not the type to walk out of a bad movie or toss aside a book halfway through.
In literature, once you start, you are in it for the long haul. For somewhere between 200 and 1,000 pages, your only choices are to keep reading or give up. But for children of the 80s and 90s, choose-your-own-adventure (CYOA) books offered an apparent escape from this one-way literary ticket. In a CYOA, the reader faces frequent decisions throughout the story: turn to page sixty-three to enter the dark and scary forest or flip to page sixty-seven to go into the equally dark and scary cave.
CYOA books present the counterpoint to Schwartz’s paradox of choice. Where Schwartz bemoans the overproliferation of options, CYOA offers a liberating three choices (page A, page B or stop reading) instead of two. Yet while excess options lead to paralysis and regret, CYOA books present the shallow deception that the reader actually has a say in the course of the story. CYOA authors, just like authors of single-path fiction, still control the outcomes of the story. No author could possibly list all the options one might encounter in a real-world parallel to the book, so there is a sense in which the apparent options of CYOA do not actually constitute a real choice.
For those who contend that fiction has no bearing on real-world choice, I submit to you the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As in most American elections, citizens were presented with two realistic choices for president (however much you may have loved Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, you must have known they didn’t stand a chance). Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump supported same-sex marriage, doubted claims about marijuana being a “gateway drug,” and opposed expansion of free trade. If you oppose universal healthcare but support free trade, or support both green energy initiatives and increased defense spending, you were left without a viable presidential candidate in 2016. Popular dissatisfaction with the lack of options was so great that if “did not vote” was a presidential candidate, it would have won the White House with a whopping 490 electoral votes.
And sometimes, the presence of two apparent political options disguises the fact that no options actually exist. In the same 2016 election, Chicago voters faced the ballot question “Should the City of Chicago work with the Federal Government and the State of Illinois to prioritize significant new investments in important infrastructure like roads, bridges, public transportation, river and lakefront redevelopment, and additional green space?”
Some people might have believed new infrastructure sounded like a great idea and hastily checked “yes.” Others may have questioned what exactly the city planned to build and who was going to pay for it. Yet none of these opinions mattered because the question was bullshit to begin with. Chicago ballots allow only three such referendum questions per election. Chicago aldermen voted to put the above question on the 2016 ballot because they and the mayor didn’t want voters to weigh in on a legitimate referendum regarding the implementation of an independent airport authority to oversee O’Hare and Midway airports (Chicago is the only U.S. city in which this oversight belongs to the mayor). City aldermen never intended for any concrete action to result from the infrastructure question. Instead, voters were presented with a choice that was not really a choice at all, because their votes were meaningless and a real, pertinent question was sidestepped.
So an excess of options can lead to choice paralysis or dissatisfaction, while a lack can lead to frustration and may even obscure the fact that no choice is truly possible at all. We know that two choices on a ballot are too few and fifty choices for retirement plans are too many. Even Schwartz admits he doesn’t know the magic number of options that would optimize choice. Yet because we don’t often get to decide how many options we are given, it remains imperative to consider the impact of our eventual choices. Are we being presented with predetermined outcomes disguised as freedom to explore new possibilities, as in a CYOA book? Or do our apparent options obscure some behind-the-scenes machinations of avoidance, as in empty ballot referendums? Whether we have two options or two hundred, we ought to think about whether our choices will make a difference and whether the eventual consequences are the ones we desire.
Doors – Max Pixel Public Domain
Clinton Trump – wikimedia creative commons
Guest Author Bio
Greg Hickey is an award-winning author, screenwriter and blogger whose debut novel Our Dried Voices was nominated for the INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award. His latest book is The Friar’s Lantern, a novel about freedom of choice written in the style of a choose-your-own-adventure. The book is currently available in a free serial format here.
Blog / Website: Greg Hickey