How Choice has made us not Freer but more Paralysed and Dissatisfied!

Choice has made us not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied.

Modernity has provided an explosion of choice in two different respects. First, in areas of life in which people have always had choice, the number of options available to them has increased dramatically. And second, in areas of life in which there was little or no choice, genuine options have now appeared.

To illustrate the first expansion of choice, consider the results of a recent trip to a local supermarket:

  • 85 different varieties and brands of crackers.
  • 285 varieties of cookies.
  • 165 varieties of “juice drinks”
  • 75 iced teas
  • 95 varieties of snacks (chips, pretzels, etc.)
  • 61 varieties of sun tan oil and sunblock
  • 80 different pain relievers
  • 40 options for toothpaste
  • 360 types of shampoo, conditioner, gel, and mousse.
  • 90 different cold remedies and decongestants.
  • 230 soups, including 29 different chicken soups
  • 120 different pasta sauces
  • 175 different salad dressings and if none of them suited, 15 extra-virgin olive oils and 42 vinegars and make one’s own.
  • 275 varieties of cereal

In a consumer electronics store:

 45 different car stereo systems, with 50 different speaker sets to go with them.

42 different computers, most of which can be customized in various ways.

110 different televisions, offering high definition, flat screen, varying screen sizes and features, and various levels of sound quality.

30 different VCRs and 50 different DVD players.

74 different stereo tuners, and 55 CD players, and 32 tape players, and 50 sets of speakers. Given that these components can be mixed and matched in every possible way, that provides the opportunity to create 6,512,000 different stereo systems.

we live in a time and a place in which freedom and autonomy are valued above all else and in which expanded opportunities for “self- determination” are regarded as a sign of the psychological well-being of individuals and the moral well-being of the culture. And we take choice as the critical sign that we have freedom and autonomy. It is axiomatic that choice is good, and that more choice is better.

However, choices, with it freedom, autonomy, and self- determination, can become excessive, and that when that happens, freedom can be experienced as a kind of misery-inducing tyranny. Unconstrained freedom leads to paralysis. It is self-determination within significant constraints—within “rules” of some sort—that leads to well-being, to optimal functioning. And the task for a future psychology of optimal functioning is to identify which constraints on self-determination are the crucial ones.

There is no denying that choice improves the quality of our lives. It enables us to control our destinies, and to come close to getting exactly what we want out of any situation. Choice is essential to autonomy, which is absolutely fundamental to well- being. Healthy people want and need to direct their own lives. Whereas many needs are universal (food, shelter, medical care, social support, education, and so on), much of what we need to flourish is highly individualized.

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