Does Choice make us Happy?

How can Choice be bad for us?  This surely goes against everything that we in the western world have taken for granted for decades, indeed hundreds of years. Choice is fundamental to freedom, and, for people who have no freedom, it makes total sense that increasing personal choice, will provide at least an illusion of freedom, and in turn enhance their welfare, satisfaction and happiness.

For people who have no freedom or choices that may well be true, but for those of us living in relative affluence, the ‘so-called’ democratic and prosperous countries of the developed world, the explosion of choice that is available to people is actually damaging their health. How so?

Because increased choice has two main effects.

First, it results in paralysis. We find it more difficult to choose.  We all know this effect when we visit a restaurant which has a menu or wine list that is over long. The greater the choice, the more difficult it becomes for us to make a decision.  Paradoxically, people prefer to have a narrower choice, to help them come to a quicker and less difficult decision.

Second, once we do make a choice from a large selection, we remain less satisfied than if we had chosen from fewer options. Basically, it is easier to imagine that we could have made a better choice when hundreds of alternatives are available to us, than if we had chosen from, let’s say, a list of just a few items.  In other words regret increases with greater choice. 

Economists, and more recently, Marketeers, have employed some very clever strategies and jet-propelled consumerism to levels beyond our wildest dreams. Supermarket shelves are stacked with thousands of varieties of similar but subtly different products. Thousands of identical cars glide off the production line, but, with extensive use of ‘feature-personalisation’, you can ensure that the one you purchase is practically unique. And you don’t even have to leave your sofa to browse and choose from the millions of possible combinations of fashions and accessories that you could be wearing out on the town on the weekend. All of which has elevated ‘Consumerism’ to an exalted, quasi-religious status amongst neo-liberal economists and free-market politicians.

However, the belief that greater choice leads to greater freedom, and greater freedom results in greater welfare, and presumably increased happiness, has not been borne out by the research. While consumerism and choice has increased in western societies, so too has clinical depression. The paradox is that, with increased choice, expectations increase, and so too does regret, dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

This paradox is explained in a light-hearted but hard-hitting way in this entertaining Ted Talk by Barry Schwartz.





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