The Paradox of Choice

The cooperation of hundreds of millions of people is needed if we are to address climate change and other major environmental worries. The destruction of the ozone layer, while no less serious, is easier to address, because there are a limited number of products contributing to the problems, and most have easy substitutes. Confronting climate change will require us to change how we live, change our expectations of what will give us pleasure. Confronting the problems of the environment requires us to make choices.

Much has been written about choice. Barry Schwartz based The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less on the Nobel Prize winning work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (collaborator who died first and did not share the prize), as well as that of Amartya Sen.

Most people dislike too little choice or too much choice. We’ve seen survey after survey where people extol choice, but when it comes to exercising choice, we are more reluctant. Often this appears as a refusal to opt for something: even when the company kicks in some money, or there’s a dollar off coupon, choice is hard. The more options on the table, the less likely that any choice will be made, and the less likely we will be happy with our choice. Several studies lead to these conclusions: a table in a store provides a $1 off coupon and displays either 6 or 24 types of jam. Thirty percent of the customers with fewer choices bought a jar of jam, but only three percent did when more choices were offered. Similarly, students offered 6 topics for an extra credit essay were more likely to write essays, and wrote better essays, than students offered 30 topics. Those selecting one out of either 6 or 30 gourmet chocolates gave higher ratings to the chocolate when it came from the sample of six.

(Given a choice between a sure $100 and a 50% chance for $200, most opt for the $100. The current social security system is preferred by those who dislike making choices and those who want a sure benefit. President Bush is rowing upstream.)

Many of today’s parents give their children a paralyzing number of choices, from what color candy (does it really matter?), which toy, which classes to take in school. Not only is precious energy devoted to solving the problem, but there is a burden: I might make the wrong choice. This burden appears even with unimportant choices, such as whether to accept $1.50 in cash or a $2 pen. Schwartz believes that citizens in societies that offer too few or two many choices have greater levels of depression.

We also find it difficult to opt out. Some enormous percentage of SUV owners go into debt to buy a car; they cannot afford the car + fuel + insurance. It is hard to opt out of what “everyone” is doing.

Studies of how change affects happiness show that the act of change often produces a blip in one direction or the other, but that even large changes such as losing a leg or gaining or losing a marriage produces a much smaller long-term effect than we expect. The consequences of buying that car are even less profound.

I haven’t read enough to know whether the various authors discuss the destructive effects of thinking choice helps. If we buy that car today, are we even less likely in the future to address what we really want? If we opt for a higher-paying job in lieu of time with our family and friends or in lieu of work that provides more non-monetary rewards, we lose twice: we lose what really matters, and we lose by thinking that money and things nurture us. (This does not apply to people whose income is low. But studies of reported happiness vs. income show that people do not report happiness increasing at an income less than American per capita income, and that it can even decrease as income level rises.)

One psychologist who worked with teenagers described what they needed: to have one person who loves you, and to accomplish something. (Does anyone remember his name?) For older people I would add a need to feel that I am contributing to my family and to my community: to feel connected.

When I ask people in one interest group what comes up for them when they think about changing their lives for the environment, adjectives such as dread and resentment head the list. Those who have begun changing their lives almost always talk of joy. This in part because of what Friends call simplicity, of living one’s life according to what is important (so as to be able to hear God’s voice). People who are consciously living with less have made choices about what they value. They are happier, happier with who they are.

People who live with less also have fewer choices, and this removes a burden. When my car broke in 1991, I told myself that I didn’t have money to replace it. It was an expensive luxury. Now I could buy a car without going into debt, but I find that by continuing to live without a car, I am less able to over schedule (I will never lose that ability totally). Almost as important is the pleasure of transporting myself through muscle power, the pleasure I receive at the time and the pleasure I receive when I can vacation with the help of muscle power. I don’t know if I would have made this change for the environment – it’s on the list of reasons, but not at the top.

We want choices in our lives, we thrive on choice. That said, I am pleased to have fewer options because I don’t have a car (except when the rains won’t end, or I need to transport something difficult, but in the latter case, there are options).

Many say that they can’t make choices about their lives because they live where there are fewer choices. How would you respond?

Comments that go beyond praise and nays Michael addresses this line in the previous post: “An older friend named a few of the problems of the 20th century: world wars, famines, genocides. Does concern about the environment really compete with such horrors?” “Yes.” he says, followed by some details.

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