Originally published – MAY 25, 2005
Now grossly over-magnified, marketing is pivotal in exaggerating choice in western culture. It’s a tired refrain to remind that branders and advertisers gorge you on implausible and improbable variants of things you already own or likely never needed — a buffet of attrition culminating in economic bulimia. Wealth does what it does. More choice among goods and services serves more to detract us from the type of quality decisions that improve our lives. Too many choices distract and sap our energy, trapping us in an ever-yawning entropy of consumption.
Should you “choose” to look past Determinism and be welcomed into this complicated and godless waste of modernism — for we are all truly its heirs and byproduct, regardless of your theistic ascription — then you can’t escape the numbing preponderance of consumptive mass. For the past few hundred years, choice has been a battle cry of freedom. Now, the “too-muchness” of it may ultimately be a schism between free will and freedom. Barry Schwartz, author of “The Paradox of Choice,” recently spoke about this at length, at the GEL 2005 conference (included within, is a transcript of his talk). Schwartz opened with a brief voice-over by Carrie from HBO’s “Sex in the City”:
“I thought about choices. Since birth, modern women have been told they can do and be anything we want – be an astronaut, be a head of a company, a stay-at-home mom. There aren’t any rules anymore. And the choices are endless. And apparently they can all be delivered right to your door. But is it possible that we’ve gotten so spoiled by choices that we’ve become unable to make one? That a part of us knows that once you choose something, one man, one grade of carpet, one amazing job, another option goes away. Are we a generation of women who can’t choose just one from column A? Did we all have too much to handle? Or was Samantha right? Can we have it all?”
My generation has progressed from the disassociated and laconic late 1980s to early 90s nihilism — to the preening and predisposed boom years of “Fight Club” and “Trainspotting.” A people given gross, economic possibility and wealth from the computer sector. We are a generation that had been latch-keyed by our Boomer parents now unlocking enormous possibility in prosperity.
“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose a three-piece-suit on hire purchased in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you have spawned to replace yourself. Choose a future. Choose life…But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?” – Renton’s opening speech from “Trainspotting.”
For Schwartz, we are as much defined by what we are as what we aren’t. Until the birth of the middle-class, it used to be that only the wealthy suffered the weight of leisure. Freedom and choice are now no longer the privilege of princes, as the modern age has promoted a robust market place (fascism aside) that allowed a measure of riches to perform on even the most meager of checkbooks. Clean drinking water and a color television? Trust me you’re ahead of the game. The American dream, that of opportunity and its presumptive wealth, is manifest as the force majeure of consumption.
Schwartz’s book builds on various dialectics from the behavioral studies: maximixer/satisficer, chooser/picker, presumptions/rules. In your favor, he’s an animated and easy speaker — the drier statistical references are left for the book.
So, we return to Carrie’s concern at the beginning: “Can we have it all?”
BARRY SCHWARTZ: So the answer is “NO.” But you know that the answer is no and I’m going to tell you why the answer is no. I guess my role here is to be the prophet of doom on an otherwise cheery occasion. What I’m going to tell you is that unless you spend all of your time keeping a lot more pins in the air than humanly possible [reference to a juggling act that preceded his talk], you will find yourself overwhelmed and not gratified by all the choices available.
My interest in the problem began when I went to replace my jeans at the GAP. I do that as infrequently as I possibly can. I dislike shopping in general but I especially hate to shop for jeans. So I went in and I told them my size and said, “Give me a pair.” The sales person said, “Do you want slim fit, easy fit, or relaxed fit? Do you want a boot cut or tapered? Do you want zipper fly or button fly? Do you want acid-wash or stone-washed or distressed?” And my mouth dropped open and I said, “I want the kind that used to be the only kind.” The sales-person being twelve years old, had no idea what that was and so I spent an hour trying on all of the different kinds that were available to me. And what happened was, after an hour, I ended up with the best fitting jeans I have ever purchased. And I felt worse about the experience than I ever have before. I did better, and I felt worse. And I spend two years trying to determine if this was something weird about me, weird about jeans, or something about our culture.
Is it good news or bad news? That we have this kind of choice with respect to jeans and as you’ll see in a minute, everything else. The answer to the question is YES. I’m going to spend no time on what’s good about it, ‘cause we all know what’s good about having all this freedom of choice. It enables us to be who we are and what we want to do. Three cheers for democracy. Two and a half cheers for capitalism. It’s what made the nation great. Right? Isn’t that what we all believe? So let’s not talk about that. I’m going to talk about what’s less good about it. But first I want to give you a sense of what “it” is, what we’re talking about. So this is what my supermarket has available. It’s not even a big supermarket. I want to say a word about salad dressing. One hundred seventy-five salad dressings doesn’t include the ten Extra Virgin Olive Oil, the twelve Balsamic Vinegars you could buy in case that none of the one hundred seventy-five that are already made for you do the job.
In consumer electronic stores, Circuit City, one hundred types of TVs, thirty VCRs, fifty DVD players. And then if you decided that you wanted to build your own stereo system – speakers, turntable – remember them? CD player, amplifier, equalizer, and if you just went through Circuit City and counted up how many different versions of each thing that you could buy, you would discover in Circuit City six and a half million different stereos. (laughing) So in the world of consumer goods, we have a lot of choice. We’ve always had choice. Now we have more choice. But in addition to that, there are whole areas of life that used to be no choice where now there is choice, and in some cases, substantial. Many of you are too young to know that there was a time when you could get any telephone service you want as long as it was renting a phone and the service from Ma Bell. Now a days, I get fifty circulars a week from phone companies begging me to switch my service.
In the world of health care, much more consequentially, we’re in charge, not the doctor. Doctors don’t tell us what to do, we tell doctors what to do. The most frightening evidence of this is the unbelievable marketing of prescription drugs on regular network television shows to you and me. They’ve succeeded in convincing us: What can we do? We can’t go to the drug-store and buy them. So all we can do is call up the doctor and say, “What the hell are you doing? Why didn’t you give me this prescription or that one?” We are in charge. The burden, by the way, which is born almost entirely by the women in households. They take care of themselves, they take care of the children, and they take care of their negligent husbands. (laughter). Retirement plans. Most employers — trying to be helpful to their employees —offer a wide range of investment vehicles into which we could put our retirement money. In a minute I’ll talk to you about the consequence of that. Major choices to be made.
We get to choose what we’re going to look like. After you solve the jeans problem, there’s still the question whether you want to suck out, scoop, a little bit of tissue from one part of your body and inject it into another part. Or paralyze your face so it doesn’t have any wrinkles. You know? In the modern world, the truth of the matter is that being ugly is a matter of choice (laughter). And that puts an incredible responsibility on each and every one of us every day. When you look in the mirror, you chose to look the way you look. There is much, much more freedom of choice with respect to intimate relationships. Do I get married or don’t I? Do I do it now or do I do it later? Do I have kids or don’t I? Do I have them now or do I have them later. And when can I give them away? None of this? All of these options were present a generation ago but the default option which is something I’m going to come back to in the end. The default option was so powerful that it didn’t occur to most people that these were matters of choice. You had to choose your mate but everything else was laid out for you. Even who we are as people is a matter of choice now in a way that it wasn’t. We don’t inherit identity to anywhere likely the extent we did and we get to recreate ourselves on a daily or even hourly basis which some people thinks is good news.
Americans have more freedom of choice than any people ever have anywhere in the history of the world. We also have more money than any people ever have in the history of the world. Yet, we are also sadder than we ever have been before. The incidence of clinical depression in the U.S. is almost twice as great as a generation ago. The incidence of suicide has never been higher. And both clinical depression and suicide are striking people at younger and younger ages. Something is wrong. And I’m going to tell you what.
First, what does all this choice do? Here’s one thing that it does. The study was done at a gourmet store. One day they had twenty-four flavors of an imported jam available for sampling, and if you stopped by and sampled the jam, you got a coupon. You could use the coupon to get a dollar off on any jam you bought. The next day, same display table, instead of twenty-four flavors, only six. You stop by you got a coupon that got you a dollar off. What they found was that twenty-four jams attracted more people than six. But, one tenth as many people bought. Should I get boysenberry, loganberry, raspberry, quince, lemon. What’s quince, by the way? I don’t know which one to choose so I’m just going to get peanut butter. That’s what happens.
Speed dating. This study was done in Manhattan. You all know what speed dating is? You know, it’s like sexual square dancing. (laughter). So one evening, participants had ten dates and in another evening they had six. And when you had ten dates, you were less likely to make a match than when you had six dates. So many wonderful potential partners to choose from, I think I’ll go home and go back to my knitting.
Convenience stores found that if they reduced the number and variety of different kinds of soda and salty snacks they had available, they increased the amount they sold and consumers left the store happier. Less variety, more sales. Try convincing anybody that that’s true. And very consequentially, a study was done of 401k plans at a lot of different work places with almost a million participants in the study. And the question was: What percentage of the work force participates in these 401ks as a function of how many different mutual funds the company makes available? And what the researchers found, for every ten mutual fund the employer makes available, participation rate goes down 2%. If you offer fifty funds to your employees, 10% fewer will participate than if you offer five. This is true despite the fact that by not participating, employees are passing up significant amounts of matching money that the employer was offering. It was so hard to know which funds to invest in that they just put it off, and they figure they’ll make the decision tomorrow but tomorrow never comes.
Okay. With all of this choice, people do better, or like I did with my jeans, they might do better. But they will feel worse. And they will feel worse, we will feel worse, I am one of you here, for several different reasons. One reason: When there are all these options available, we can’t examine them all. One of two things will happen. We’ll be so sure that the choice we make is not going to be the best one that we’ll be paralyzed and not choose at all. Anticipated regret is paralyzed. I know I’m going to feel bad about this car, I won’t buy a car. I know I’m going to feel bad about this vacation, I won’t go on vacation. Or actual regret. I buy the car. You know, it’s a car. I’m sure if I’d bought “that” one, it would have been better. So this is anticipated regret. Second: People are just beleaguered by the idea that by choosing one option they’re going to have to pass up other attractive alternatives. What economists call “opportunity costs.” The more options there are, the more options you consider, the more attractive features those options have. You can’t have it all. You’re gonna have to say no to some attractive things in order to say yes to other attractive things. And all of these opportunity costs build up and subtract from the satisfaction that people get from whatever it is that they actually choose.
So there’s a study done on opportunity costs. People are in an experiment, a short experiment. They get offered two bucks or a nice pen that’s actually worth $2.50. It’s an old experiment so inflate this by 100%. Seventy-five percent choose the pen. Another group of people, same experiment, they get offered two bucks or the same good pen or two cheaper pens. Now surely if 75% prefer the good pen to $2, I believe 75% will prefer either the good pen or the cheaper pens. How else could it be otherwise? Well, 45% choose either pen, and the reason is, when you’re thinking about the good pen, the attractiveness of having two pens subtracts from how good the good pen is. And when you’re thinking about the two pens, the attraction of actually having a good pen subtracts from having two pens. And all of a sudden, $2 looks better than either of the alternatives. This is modern life capsulated in a simple experiment.
To get serious for a moment, I teach at a wonderful institution, Swarthmore College, with spectacular students who are good at everything or maybe many things. And I have learned over the years there’s a question you don’t ask people in the senior year. That question is: What are you going to do when you graduate? And the reason you don’t ask that question is that 90% of them don’t know the answer. And they’ve been plagued by the fact that they don’t know the answer. And the reason they don’t know the answer is that they know that they’re good in a lot of things. But the point has come in their lives when they’re going to have to walk through one door and close other doors. And the opportunities, the missed opportunities that that represents are so paralyzing and so debilitating that they leave college the most privileged, best educated people on earth miserable because they don’t know what is it they’re supposed to do with their lives. What they end up doing is working at Starbucks. That’s why there are so many of them. (laughter) It’s actually a government employment plan. They work at Starbucks hoping that one day the answer to the question — What should I be in life? — will emerge, it will appear some how by magic. So I sometimes say that what college education does, it takes a bunch of people who would have worked at McDonald’s and educates them so they can work instead at Starbucks. A lot of money spent, but I think it’s progress.
Just a word about opportunity causing stress at work. Work stress costs the economy a fortune. A lot of work stress comes from job insecurity and from the ridiculous number of hours that people work in the U.S., but it also comes from choice. What do I mean? What I mean is that the kind of work people do is work you can do anywhere and any time, with a cell phone on this hip. You’ve got your Blackberry on that hip. You’ve got your laptop on your lap. You’re watching your kid play soccer. And even if you don’t turn any of those gadgets on, you’re asking yourself all through the soccer game, Should I return this cell phone call? Should I answer this email? Should I craft a reply to this correspondent? And saying no is better than saying yes, I suppose, while you’re watching your son or daughter playing soccer, but it’s none-the-less torturous. Because every minute of every day is an opportunity to work that you may be missing, because you want to do other things like have a life.
One problem that all these choices propose is that as more options appear, our expectations about how good the thing we finally choose is going to be go up. That’s why I felt worse when I bought those jeans. They fit me really well, but I figured with forty different styles to choose from, one of them would be perfect. None of them was perfect. Increased options, increased expectations, and by and large the satisfaction that we get from the decision has to do with whether it meets or exceeds our expectations. And if our expectations are ridiculously high, all of our experience will end up being disappointed.
Now what’s true about this is that everything was better when everything was worse because when everything is worse it was possible for experiences to exceed expectation. It is now no longer possible for most of us to have experiences that exceed expectations.
Close relations to other people limit our choices. Whatever else they do, they estrange. There are certain things you can’t do. If you have a close relation to other people – family, a spouse – because you have responsibilities as designers to be helpful to the other person. Close relations limit opportunity. And I think that in the modern world, the world we live in, this is the price that we pay for having close relations. It’s actually part of the benefit. You have close relations to other people, that circumscribes the world of what’s possible for you. And anything that circumscribes the world of what’s possible for us now a days is progress. Is life improving?
You know a lot of people are getting married. This is just to show you that there was a time in our history that not everything was a matter of choice. The more I thought about it, though, the more I came to realize that the real insight is that if you don’t live in some kind of a fish bowl, if everything is possible, then, in fact, nothing is possible. It’s only when there are constraints, when there are limits that it’s possible to do and be and achieve anything. The critical thing is choice within limits, within constraints. And that, I think, is the absence of constraint that’s causing so much unhappiness in modern American society.
Schwartz ends on an interesting note. Harder to quantify is the difficulty all this stuff infects our private life: our family and our loved ones. Our increased affluence and freedom seems to also bring with it a diminished return in quality of relationships. Nearly one quarter of Americans report being lonely. Only, the loneliness seems to stem not from solitude, but from lack of intimacy. He expands on this in his book, The Paradox of Choice:
“To raise the stakes, consider the possible difference between those who regard marital vows as sacred and unbreakable and those who regard them as agreements that can be reversed or undone by mutual consent. We would expect that those who see marriage as a nonreversible commitment will be more inclined to do psychological work that makes them feel satisfied with their decision than will those whose attitude about marriage is more relaxed. As a result, individuals with “nonreversible” marriages might be more satisfied than individuals with “reversible” ones. As we see reversible marriages come apart, we may think to ourselves, how fortunate the couple was to have a flexible attitude toward marital commitment, given that it didn’t work out. It might not occur to us that the flexible attitude might have played a causal role in the marriage’s failure.” p.145
“Rising Individualism and Self blame: Along with the pervasive rise in expectations, American culture has also become more individualistic than it was, perhaps as a byproduct of the desire to have control over every aspect of life. To be less individualistic – to tie oneself tightly into networks of family, friends, and community – is to be bound, to some degree, by the needs of family, friends, and community. If our attachments to others are serious, we can’t just do whatever we want. I think the single most difficult negotiation that faces young people who marry in today’s America is the one in which the partners decide where their individual autonomy ends and marital obligation and responsibility takes over.” p.211
“Research literature suggests that gratitude does not come naturally to most of us most of the time. Usually, thinking about possible alternatives is triggered by dissatisfaction with what was chosen. When life is not too good, we think a lot about how it could be better. When life is going well, we tend not to think much about how it could be worse. But with practice, we can learn to reflect on how much better things are than they might be, which will in turn make the good things in life feel even better.” p.230
Our prospects as described by Schwartz aren’t so cheerful: Is too much choice a gluttonous hell? For all of our aesthetic, medical, technological achievements, we are still hemmed by a base vice: Greed. For all of our advancement, we’ve moved forward but have we much gotten at all ahead? There seem to be no champions for restraint save for antiquated mantras recited on the tongue of religion. For all our trappings and comforts in modern convenience, how then do we reconcile an escalating depression and suicide rate?
The truth of modernism is that industry, now unfettered by the religious bias of thousands of years, would finally come together to form an economic conceit that would endure and prosper. The promise that opportunity and prosperity would eliminate worry has been static since the industrial revolution.
A few years ago, Giuseppe Tornatore wrote and directed an under-appreciated, genre movie “The Legend of 1900.” In it we are given a portrait of a pianist who spends his whole life on board a transatlantic steamer. On defeating his rival and losing his girl to New York, he stands posed for the first time to leave the boat in order to find the girl and claim his fame on dry land. In a brief monologue, the main character echoes the same plight that Schwartz carries forward into this millennia:
“All that city. You just couldn’t see the end to it. The end? Please? Will you please just show me where it ends? It was all very fine on that gangway. And I was grand too, in my overcoat. I cut quite a figure. And I was getting off. Guaranteed. There was no problem. It wasn’t what I saw that stopped me, Max. It was what I didn’t see. You understand that? What I didn’t see. In all that sprawling city there was everything except an end. There was no end. What I did not see was where the whole thing came to an end. The end of the world … Take a piano. The keys begin, the keys end. You know there are eighty-eight of them. Nobody can tell you any different. They are not infinite. You are infinite. And on these keys the music that you can make is infinite. I like that. That I can live by. You get me up on that gangway and you’re rolling out in front of me a keyboard of millions of keys, millions and billions of keys that never end, and that’s the truth, Max. That they never end. That keyboard is infinite. And if that keyboard is infinite, then on that keyboard there is no music you can play. You’re sitting on the wrong bench. That’s God’s piano. Christ! Did, did you see the streets? Just the streets — There were thousands of them! And how do you do it down there? How do you choose just one? One woman? One house? One piece of land to call your own? One landscape to look at? One way to die? All that world is weighing down on me. You don’t even know where it comes to an end. And aren’t you ever just scared of breaking apart at the thought of it? The enormity of living it?”
How indeed do you confront the enormity of living it?
Placement was a website that turned a critical eye on culture, with an emphasis on the importance of integrity in process over product. It published frequently from 2005 through 2006, as an online critique of art and design within contemporary culture. Placement provided original content by independent voices – something the internet is particularly good at offering but which blogs don’t seem to be very good at maintaining.
In order to save some of that work from the sands of time, I’ve archived selections from that work here: PLACEMENT Archive
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