So what to pick?

Woman's Era - - Contents - Priyanka Chauhan

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


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?

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