How Americans Are Tyrannized By Too Much Choice

Have we become overwhelmed by our culture’s overinvestment in choice?

Photo Credit: TaniaLerro

We are lousy at making up our minds. Advertisers may goad us with slogans like “The choice is clear” and “There is only one good choice,” and the economists who champion rational-choice theory may still evoke a generic, utility-maximizing consumer who sizes up every situation in terms of his or her personal advantage. But after several decades of research—most famously that of Nobel Prize–winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky—it has become widely accepted, save among some skeptical social scientists, that the ability of any one of us to choose what’s in our best interest is severely limited.

It seems that we routinely overestimate what we know. We fail to predict what we will want in the future. We are inconsistent about our preferences. We value the objects we possess over the ones we lack in ways that don’t make any objective sense. And having better or more extensive information does not necessarily improve matters. That’s because when making choices, we also tend to ignore facts that do not jibe with the outcome we desire; we focus on information that is irrelevant, or see patterns where they do not exist, or get distracted by our fleeting emotions. Then, if the possibilities are presented differently, our choices will shift accordingly, suggesting that on top of it all, we are easily manipulated by those in the business of manufacturing situations bloated with options. By and large, when it comes time to choose, the impulsive, unreflective parts of the brain dominate the analytic parts. Or to put it differently, adults are a lot more like children than we might care to admit.

It’s a verdict around which a lucrative genre of business and self-help books has developed. On the heels of bestsellers like Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow; How We Decide, by the discredited former New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer; and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, all of which successfully popularized scholarly findings on our mental fallibility, have come a slew of instruction manuals promising businesspeople, consumers and even the lovelorn the key to beating the decision-making odds. Airport bookstores are well stocked with offerings like Make Up Your Mind: A Decision Making Guide to Thinking Clearly and Choosing Wisely (2012); Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life or Work (2013); Eyes Wide Open: How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World (2013); and The Happiness Choice: The Five Decisions That Will Take You From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be (2013)—not to mention specialized guides focused on careers, marriage, health and nutrition, consumer goods, and personal finance, all of them crammed with lessons about choice. Last year, even the Harvard Business Review weighed in with “10 Must Reads on Making Smart Decisions.” The message? If we understand our foibles and learn to choose more self-consciously, each of us will do a lot better making up our minds in the future.

But what if such how-to manuals, with their emphasis on enlarging the scope of personal responsibility to include choosing to monitor one’s own decision-making psychology, are better seen as symptoms of what ails us? What if the real problem is the imperative of making all those choices in all those different realms, from sex to software, in the first place? This is the view of a small number of philosophers, legal theorists and culturally aware psychologists, including Barry Schwartz and, more recently, Sheena Iyengar, Sigal Ben-Porath, Kent Greenfield and Renata Salecl. They insist that we have become overwhelmed and even “tyrannized” by our culture’s overinvestment in choice.

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In this telling, the problem stretches from the supermarket, with its average of 42,686 different items from which to prepare tonight’s dinner and care for the home, to the halls of Congress, where both sides of the aisle take the expansion of choice to be an unqualified good, even as they disagree about what needs choosing. As Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky told an Energy Department official in exasperation at a 2011 Senate committee hearing, “You favor a woman’s right to an abortion, but you don’t favor a woman or a man’s right to choose what kind of lightbulb.” Choice may be a bedrock value in terms of capitalism and democracy, a prerogative that stands for freedom and control over one’s own image and destiny. But, argue Salecl, Greenfield and others, an ill-considered collective investment in picking from a proliferating and often phony array of options is having adverse effects on mental health and social and political life alike.

On the one hand, the constant obligation to choose leaves people perpetually anxious and, at times, incapable of making up their minds at all. It doesn’t matter if the choice concerns shampoos (where the differences among options appear large but are actually negligible) or healthcare (where the differences can be difficult to discern but matter greatly). We dither and refuse to commit, because to make a choice is to enter a realm of uncertainty and missed opportunities. On the other hand, given the dominance of the view that choice-making stands for independence and personal responsibility (remember Milton and Rose Friedman’s famed PBS series Free to Choose), we can’t help feeling guilty when, once we have made up our minds, things go awry. We are conditioned to conclude not that luck, fate, God or some other force has let us down, but that the choices we have made must have been less than optimal—which only aggravates the stress of the next “preference determination.” This is, in Iyengar’s terms, the “mental and emotional tax” that too much freedom of choice exacts. We—meaning everyone who lives in countries dominated by the ideology of consumerism, democracy and individualism—feel habitually worn out by all the effort.

Plus, according to Greenfield and others, there are secondary effects of choice overload that we have hardly recognized, much less rectified. Many of our choices turn out, upon reflection, to be largely meaningless (think of those scarcely distinguishable shampoos); we are all a lot less free than we generally suppose. But most of us also fail to notice how a consumer-oriented focus on the value of exercising our options leaves out and, indeed, punishes others, especially the poor. Adults without the economic means to enter the market never face the same range of possibilities, yet their (and their children’s) failure to flourish is routinely ascribed to their not having “taken responsibility” and made the “right choices,” whether in school, on the street or around the dinner table. This diagnosis airbrushes structural inequality out of the picture. What’s more, Salecl notes in the most thoroughgoing of these social critiques, our collective obsession with individual choice distracts us from pursuing collective solutions to these dilemmas. It seems we are always on the way home to ponder (and worry about) all the incredible possibilities before us on or the 700-channel desert of cable TV.

Technology, however, is but one of the culprits—and not the most significant one—in these cautionary tales. Their subject matter is essentially modern life, considered as the hazily defined and largely unanticipated consequence of some blend of Enlightenment notions of the self and freedom, the explosion of consumer culture, the live-and-let-live ethos of the 1960s and, as icing on the cake, the technological revolution associated with the home computer that has multiplied the offerings in every domain from the hundreds or thousands to the millions or billions. Domestic and international political developments play a smaller explanatory role in each of these accounts than they should. But all of these authors (with the partial exception of Iyengar) take for granted that while an obsession with choice is the peculiar invention of the West, and especially of the United States, it is becoming a global norm.

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The bulk of these books is given over to laying bare the problem, often with a focus on consumer behavior, rather than considering what could be done to remedy the situation. A repeated touchstone is Iyengar and her colleague Mark Lepper’s taste-testing experiment in which shoppers in an upscale food market in California were presented with, on one occasion, samples of three flavors of jam and, on another occasion, twenty-four flavors. After trying a bite or two, those in the first group proved many times more likely to walk out of the store with a purchase. Those in the second group found themselves flummoxed by all the possibilities and consequently paralyzed by indecision when it came to deciding what to buy. This now-famous finding (Iyengar jokes about having to talk about it with strangers on planes) has been widely taken to illustrate the pitfalls of endlessly expanding “choice sets.” Advertisers are urged to pay attention: people yearn—despite their protestations to the contrary—for guidance in how to limit their choices. And in keeping with this marketing orientation, the prescriptions for consumers proffered by these books remain, by and large, frustratingly small, personal and individualized in nature.

One constant refrain is the importance of developing expertise in the domain in which one needs to make a choice, but even more in the psychology of decision-making. Practical knowledge of the brain’s workings gets repackaged as empowerment, a tool that will supposedly allow people not only to work successfully against their biases, but also to prioritize in the realm of choice and, in some cases, to opt out of choosing at all. Barry Schwartz, in his 2003 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, cleverly insisted that choosing not to choose was on its way to becoming the new mark of autonomy. Iyengar’s catch-phrase is that we must be “choosy about choosing.” There is also an odd infatuation on the part of many of these authors with voluntary restraints and “precommitments”: marriage contracts, self-imposed retirement savings plans, and websites like that commit a user to making donations to unacceptable charities as a punishment for violating a contract—say, to quit smoking or lose twenty pounds—made with oneself. It is hard not to see such responses as signs of resignation in the face of an unalterable status quo. If the overabundance of choice is inescapable, maybe the best one can do is to try occasionally to turn one’s back on it, often with the purchase of yet another consumer good or app.

This is certainly Iyengar’s emphasis. Her pathbreaking research on decision-making was originally made famous by Malcolm Gladwell. In The Art of Choosing, she popularizes her own findings very much in the chatty Gladwellian vein, easily moving from stories drawn from her own life to self-administered “tests” for the reader and accounts of quirky academic studies conducted in business schools and psychology departments—many of which, ironically, involve deceiving participants about their aims and, in essence, depriving them of the chance to make an informed choice. Before an oddly compelling personal account of her own experience, as a blind woman, picking a nail polish color, Iyengar makes a cloying appeal to her readers turned pals: “We’ve been together in this book for several chapters now, and you’ve been a good sport, so I’m going to share a secret: Sometimes I like to turn my choice into someone else’s problem.” It comes as no surprise, then, that her “solutions,” including boldface takeaways offered in an epilogue, generally amount to no more than platitudes aimed at you individually, dear reader, about not sweating the small stuff, knowing thyself and thy goals, respecting difference, relinquishing control to someone else (a “choice provider”) when the time is right, and not beating oneself up for making errors (“maybe we all need to focus a little less on perfection and more on the joys of simply spending time with the people we love”). She hardly expects us to stop shopping around.

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But deep in chapter two, Iyengar makes a proposal that saves The Art of Choosing from being a simple Gladwellian knockoff. In her exceedingly cautious way, she sketches the outlines of a political position. According to this view, individual willpower constitutes only half the story; “freedom from,” or acting without restraint or interference from other people, is insufficient without “freedom to,” or possessing resources that enable one to act. Iyengar thus quietly makes the case for that most unfashionable of ideas—active government—at the middle point between capitalism and socialism. And she does so, she says, as a means to facilitate a natural predilection, evident even in well-tended but depressed zoo animals, for what she calls “true choice.” As she explains it, “true choice requires that a person have the ability to choose an option and not be prevented from choosing it by any external force, meaning that a system tending too far toward either extreme”—capitalism or socialism—“will limit people’s opportunities.” This is the same cause that, in different ways, rallies both Ben-Porath and Greenfield and suggests that a critique of the proliferation of choice can also allow for a serious reframing of liberalism and the market model.

In Tough Choices, Ben-Porath is blunter about assigning government a positive role in shaping the “landscape of choice,” even as she too charts a middle course. Nothing is more wrongheaded, the political theorist notes, than the idea that we all choose as free and equal members of society as long as government stays out of the way. On the contrary, new findings about how badly we perform in the business of decision-making—but also about how limited the choices are for some, and how aggravating an abundance of choice is for others—are cause for reassessing our attachment to liberal paradigms that unthinkingly take choice to be a virtue in and of itself. The problem, argues Ben-Porath, is that liberals still have not relinquished the discredited idea of the rational individual, left to his or her own devices, as an inherently effective and contented master of his or her own domain. If we took seriously the empirical research of psychologists like Kahneman, Tversky and Dan Ariely and accepted that “simply providing more choice does not necessarily improve individuals’ opportunities to make choices that are good for them,” we would discover that we could all do a better job of determining our preferences if we had some help.

Tough Choices is not, however, simply a brief for “libertarian paternalism,” or a fashionable defense of small-scale government programs aimed at encouraging people to want what they should want and decide what they should decide—such as whether to take an apple or a doughnut on the cafeteria line. Ben-Porath is after something bigger than merely prompting good choices by moving the apples closer to the cash register. The state is already heavily invested in the business of shaping how we choose, she explains, and minor forms of manipulation (“nudges,” in the parlance of libertarian paternalists Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler) do little to alleviate the inequality of choice conditions. A disciple of University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann and an expert in schooling, Ben-Porath argues instead for what she calls “structured paternalism,” or more extensive manipulation of the “choice architecture,” designed to put adults as well as children in a position where they can make “informed” and “meaningful” choices. What guidelines the state should follow in establishing this choice architecture remain persistently vague; Ben-Porath pushes the promotion of civic equality (equal participation in the democratic process) as well as the creation of opportunity equality (an equal chance at self-betterment)—while also insisting on safeguarding the “diverse preferences” rooted in the culture or personality of those doing the choosing. This seems a rather conflicted set of goals on which to build policy. But in the most basic of terms, Ben-Porath wants to convince us that sometimes it is a very good idea for the state to regulate or even to restrict the menu of options, as in marriage or banking, precisely so as to “allow individuals to better pursue their preferences and aspirations” or make sounder choices. This is an important formulation in and of itself.

* * *

Greenfield offers a different, if not antithetical, response. Most of The Myth of Choice reads as a cheerfully contrarian, verging-on-cute account of the wide variety of unrecognized constraints on free choice that already shape our lives. For the first three-quarters of the book, we are back in the territory of Gladwell and Iyengar, once again being regaled with the Great Jam Experiment alongside juicy court cases, familiar news stories (Abu Ghraib, Hurricane Katrina) and advertising references (“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” “Have it your way”), and a lot of breezily told anecdotes about a coal-mining grandfather who got paid in scrip, the hazards of middle-class American child-rearing, and the joys and frustrations of shopping at Best Buy and Whole Foods. Our problematic brains trick us at every turn, we learn once again. Cultural norms keep us on the straight and narrow, circumscribing our range of options and stifling dissent. Why else, with all those choices available, do we generally seek to wear almost the same clothes as everyone else? Rules and authority figures do more of the same (and here we also get the famous Milgram experiment of the 1960s, in which participants proved willing to administer electric shocks to fellow volunteers rather than resist a professor’s orders). Finally, Greenfield insists that the market itself restricts our choices as much as it enables them, leaving all of us feeling overwhelmed, our collective moral and social dilemmas unsatisfactorily resolved, and the poor essentially powerless. As he notes in one of many clever asides, the one choice not really available to us is the choice to limit the spread of the market and its values.

What is more surprising about Greenfield’s book is where this overly long rehearsal of the “myth” of choice ends up. Rather than simply urge limited disengagement from consumer society as a principled response to a world of hollow choices, as one might expect, Greenfield, a law professor, argues for the cultivation of two old-fashioned virtues: “empathy,” or compassion toward others, and “humility” about oneself. Empathy, of course, is the very word that sent Republicans into a tailspin when President Obama called it an important quality in a Supreme Court justice on the eve of Sandra Sotomayor’s appointment. But Greenfield hopes that if we move away from the destructive tendency to see an idealized world of “free choice” as the ground on which we all operate, and if we make more of an effort to acknowledge the various constraints that produced our own (or others’) bad choices, we will come to a political conclusion. If we were really serious about promoting choice and personal responsibility across the board, we would need substantially more help from the government, especially the law. Not for Greenfield either is the small-bore paternalism of nudges, in which the tools of advertisers and marketers are turned toward socially constructive ends. Greenfield unabashedly advocates an interventionist state that prevents economic need from becoming a source of coercion and also promotes (as opposed to tolerates) diversity and dissent. He has, in this book, simply found a new way to endorse these progressive goals: by advocating public measures to make our choices more “genuine” and “real.”

Greenfield, like Ben-Porath and Iyengar, still returns in the end to an imagined realm of authentic choice that, for all of these authors, equals authentic freedom. It remains unclear in each case if unhampered choice constitutes the human condition in some earlier period or natural state (in which case, we are reminded of Rousseau’s insistence that people in developed societies must now be “forced to be free”), or if genuine choice exists only in some utopia yet to be achieved. It is hard to know in part because so much of the writing on this subject is dedicated to explaining, à la Greenfield, that the constraints on our ability to choose are more extensive than we imagine. Nevertheless, the common thread in these accounts is that “real” or “true” or “genuine” or “meaningful” choice—the foundation of the liberal imagination—will indeed prevail if, and only if, we learn to pay attention to the ways it is hampered at present and then use our collective energies to enable its flourishing. In a sense, all three authors propose to employ the dominant ideology of consumer society (Greenfield’s “rhetoric of the powerful”) to limit the dominance of the market and to justify an activist state.

Salecl offers a strong rejoinder to this view. The Slovenian philosopher, who has no practical suggestions to make and mixes her observations about Internet dating and plastic surgery with largely unhelpful passages of dense Lacanian analysis and a dollop of Marxism, comes close to saying that belief in genuine (unfettered, rational, individual) choice is the greatest myth of all. For not only does this faith require us to ignore our own psychology, in which it is not neurological hardwiring but unconscious impulses and desires that rule; it can also prevent us from acknowledging that today, as the language of choice maximization permeates even the intimate realms of sex and reproduction, we must throw off its chains in order to envision something new. Indeed, Salecl warns us rather ominously that we are never more caught up in the ideology of choice than when we think we have escaped it by embracing simplicity and personally opting out!

Iyengar actually makes a similar case—and in more accessible terms. Her position between two cultures (that of India, where she was born and has strong ties, and that of the United States, where she lives and works) allows her some fine observations about choice as ultimately one set of narrative conventions among several possibilities, and one that works less well for her Indian relatives, not to mention postcommunist Eastern Europeans or the Japanese, than for her Columbia Business School colleagues. The Art of Choosing opens with the story of her own family’s arrival in North America told from three perspectives—that of fate, accident and choice—precisely to show that there is nothing natural about imposing choice and self-determination as the main rubrics for making sense of the raw data of our lives, from birth to marriage(s) to death. Yet in the end, Iyengar refuses to adjudicate and simply tells her readers of the importance of recognizing cultural differences (or “metaphorical multilingualism,” as she calls it) when it comes to business values such as risk and choice. She herself risks nothing more incendiary than that.

Salecl alone uses a discussion of free-choice ideology to offer a robust critique of a global culture of individual acquisition and self-betterment that, she argues, has resulted neither in greater happiness nor greater justice. She never denies that making choices is an “essential human capacity,” one that renders change possible. But she also wants to remind us that choice and coercion are closely related (for her, the consumer is the new slave), and that the more our menu of options grows in size or significance, the more we will seek, consciously or not, to bind ourselves in other ways in compensation, whether through psychological mechanisms or the legal arm of the state. For Salecl, even the enduring appeal of the idea of a higher power is but another way to deal with the uncertainty and anxiety brought on by having to make so many decisions by and for oneself in the first place. The Tyranny of Choice thus belongs to the very dialectical history it is charting; this brief book is itself a powerful demand for collective restraint in light of the burden of proliferating choice. The question we are left with is whether the way forward lies in turning the neoliberal language of choice against the market model, or in imagining the world in entirely different terms.

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