The Cost of Choice

American social psychologist Barry Scwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice (2005) presents an interesting concept that people are actually limited by the overwhelming array of choices they have to make. By having such choice, he says, we set ourselves up to expect higher standards and end up less fulfilled. Such a “choice overload” can lead to dissatisfaction even before choices are made.Anybody in the marketing game should take note, because sometimes too much to choose from can simply lead to people unhappy with their selection (even though it may well be a better ‘fit’ for them) or simply not committing to something.

It isn’t just about commerce, however, as Schwartz also addresses the thinking that feeling overwhelmed and unfulfilled through being forced to make so many critical choices can lead to unhappiness and even clinical depression. This is a paradox in western society where we are constantly being told that choice is good, whether it be in schools, pension plans, utility services etc. Whilst on the surface we may assume that we might be happier with our lot, there is a risk that, as a whole, we are not.

So, we are led to consider allowing ourselves to set some parameters rather than seeking outright freedom when faced with making choices. Here’s my own summary of five key ideas:

  1. Accept limits on choice, don’t assume that more is better
  2. Don’t always expect the best, be satisfied with “good enough”
  3. Lower expectations can be fulfilled more fully
  4. Try to be satisfied having made a decision
  5. Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses

Choice is offered these days in the name of competitive services and offerings that supposedly drive prices down. There is a whole industry dedicated to finding us, but not providing, the best/cheapest insurance policies, holidays, rental, white goods etc.

It is not all bad, however. Choice has also seen a new breed of supplier emerge, a supplier for the 21st Century who takes the planet into consideration and helps us to feel we are being ethical in our choices. Some people are researching past the products they consume to take an interest in where they are sources from and make informed decisions as to what the social and human cost has been. Our Landrover bears a sticker assuring us that its CO2 is offset for the first three years, relieving our guilt and helping us hold our heads up high as we browse the Whole Food Store and seek out an Oxfam store to donate our old jeans to.

One could argue that having to take ethics into consideration is another complication, but the implications of us not doing so are too great. For this to work, our choices must not be seen as myriad, instead, they must be easy to assemble and assess for us. As we go on, we need to consider ourselves and others and everything in between, it seems – not an easy task.

So, here is one point I would make in relation to older adults. KISS: The acronym for ‘Keep It Simple Sunshine’. Whatever options older people have to choose from, they should not end up bewildered. Otherwise it will manifest itself in the “decision-making paralysis” Schwartz refers to. There’s enough confusion in life already.

In adult learning experiences, it is possibly true that just one relevant activity, rather than a choice of similar ones is best. In the lifelong context, one at a time might be a good maxim to remember.