TOO MUCH CHOICE KILLS THE CHOICE
So what to pick?
Seeking relief from the blazing sun on a summer noon, I went to an ice-cream parlour. A scoop of ice-cream for my insipid body was all I wanted that day. I extended my credit card to the cashier and waited impatiently to gorge onto my frozen feast. To my dismay, he pointed towards a full wall menu which stood tall behind me. Befuddled, I looked at the poster, gradually, moving away from the queue. The greed to have and hold the cold wonder began to wither as numerous choices danced before me. More flavours, sizes, fruits, sauces and combos unsettled layers of neurons in my brain. Decades back, the choice of flavour was either vanilla or strawberry, occasionally, butter scotch. Well, to say the least, all these decisions eventually made my parched tongue drop dead.
As the French saying has it: Trop
de choixtue le choix (too much choice kills the choice). I am all for choices in life but here the exoticism had multiplied my confusion. Agreed, free choice is the basis for free markets run, driving competition and economic growth; in fact, it is the cornerstone of liberal democracy. However, amid all the dizzying possibilities, a nagging question lurks: is extra choice a good thing?
Often, more options don’t equal better choices. American psychologist Barry Schwartz captured this conflict perfectly in his book The Paradox of Choice: “When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable … but as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannise.”
Choice, choice everywhere
Why mention only ice-cream parlours then? Doesn’t choice govern every sphere of life? It seduces modern consumers at every turn. Lattes come tall, short, skinny, decaf, flavoured, iced, spiced or frappe. Jeans come flared, bootlegged, skinny, cropped, straight, low-rise, bleach-rinsed, dark-washed or distressed. Moisturiser nourishes, lifts, smooths, revitalises, conditions, firms, refreshes and rejuvenates. Tropicana turns out freshly pulped juice in more than 20 varieties, up from just six in 2004; there could be as many as 30 in the next decade.
Needless to mention the digital options youngsters have today. They can surf, chat, tweet, zap or poke in ways that their parents can barely fathom. Pictures and music can be viewed, recorded, downloaded or streamed on all screens or devices. Internet has empowered the consumer to research before choosing. Take the case of price comparison websites exhorting buyers to compare and check before making final decisions are on rise. Whatsapp, with over one billion users, in a bid to engage its users more has thrown in features which can record, delete, call and update status.
Credit also goes to the evolution of medicine and technology, for now choice has plodded its way from grocery shelves to areas that once had few or none. Faces, noses, wrinkles, breasts and bellies can be remodelled, plumped or tucked. The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS) in a recent survey found that cosmetic surgical procedures accounts for 77 per cent of surveyed physicians’ business. Breast lifts, eyelid surgery, liposuction, upper arm lifts are up by 57 per cent, 33 per cent and 58 per cent, 59 per cent respectively over the past five years, the survey concluded. (ASAPS worked with an independent firm to compile national data for procedures performed in 2012-2017.)
Reasons for predicament
Economist Daniel Mcfadden from the University of California, USA says consumers find many options troublesome because of the “risk of misperception, miscalculation, of misunderstanding the available alternatives, of misreading one's own tastes, of yielding to a moment's whim and regretting it,” combined with “the stress of information acquisition.” In some cases, expectation of indecision can even prompt panic and failure to choose at all, he adds. At those moments, one wishes if someone else could pick for them.
A few psychologists are also of the view that more options raise expectations, which may make even a good decision feel bad. The potential for regret about options not taken—the faster car, the hotel with the better view—seems to be
WHATSAPP, WITH OVER ONE BILLION USERS, IN A BID TO ENGAGE ITS USERS MORE HAS THROWN IN FEATURES WHICH CAN RECORD, DELETE, CALL AND UPDATE STATUS.
greater in the face of multiple choices.
Author Renata Salecl argues in her book Choice that “expectations are raised to an extent that people think perfect choice exists. Consider the art of seduction,” she says. Bookshops are crowded with selfhelp guides such as How to Choose & Keep Your Partner or Love is a Choice. Internet dating sites promise to find your soul mate with just a few clicks. This nourishes the hope of making the ideal choice, Salecl concludes, as well as the fanciful idea that there are “quick, rational solutions to the complicated question of seduction”.
Enter alone ‘choice’ as a search term on Amazon and one gets more than 100,000 results. From ‘Embrace the possible’ to live life by choice’, the search for perfect choice goes on and on.
Another issue is that more options often decrease satisfaction levels in humans. Apply the diminishing marginal utility law studied at school. It states each new option subtracts a little from the feeling of well-being, until the marginal benefits of added choice level off. This simple law of economics explains why we end up feeling miserable in the wake of more choices.
Professor Sheena Iyengar, deemed worldwide an expert on choice, concluded in her research that extra choice leads to less satisfaction, disengages consumers, affects the quality of their decisions. “Too much choice is demotivating,” she states emphatically in her work.
BBC recently carried an article where Aldi, the ninth largest retailer in the world, topped supermarket survey of Feb’18 where respondents praised the ease of finding items on shelves at the store. It is to be noted that Aldi offers only 1,400 products-one can of tomato sauce.
Prioritise from ‘more is better' to ‘less is more'
L'astrance, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris, offers no choice at all on its menu. Each evening, guests are served a surprise spread. Chef Pascal Barbot, considered one of France’s finest chefs, goes by his instinct and concocts what he fancies from produce picked up that day. For him it is only important that ingredients are best in quality, not more in number. As sometimes less is more, isn’t it?
When American company
Procter & Gamble decided to thin down its range of Head & Shoulders shampoos from 26 to 15, sales increased by 10 per cent, Iyengar says in her widely popular book The Art of Choosing.
To this regard, Iyengar’s team conducted a landmark experiment in California’s upmarket grocery store which revealed intriguing insights. Researchers set up a sampling table with a display of jams. In the first test they offered 24 different jams to taste; on a different day they displayed just six. It turned out that more shoppers stopped at the display when there were 24 jams. But when it came to buying, fully 30 per cent of those who stopped at the six-jam table went on to purchase a pot, against merely three per cent of those who were faced with the selection of 24 jams.
How to resolve this dilemma
To mitigate the problem of choice overload- cut- get rid of the extra alternatives; concretize- make it real; categorise - we can handle more categories, less choices; condition for complexity. Iyengar believes the key to getting the most from choice is to be choosy about choosing.
Or merely write down a “It’s good enough” note and keep it in a pocket. Embrace constraints on your freedom of choice, lower expectations about the results of decisions, non-reversible decisions would certainly help. Most importantly, pay less attention to what others are doing.
To pull out from a zone where people give choice a chance, and rather understand conflicts between the principles of equity, universalism and empowered consumer, doesn’t seem a bad choice after all. Does it?