Paralysed by Infinite Choice

Moving to something of a lighter topic than the last post (while keeping the same holiday setting as an introduction), I want to use this post as an opportunity to discuss my theory of the crushing burden of too much choice. Yes, that’s right, I said “too much choice”.

Please let me explain.

While we were on holidays, we partook (a couple of times) of a really nice buffet dinner. I know that some people can’t get their head around that apparent oxymoron, but it was pretty good as far as I’m concerned. This was, of course, in addition to the glorious buffet breakfasts we were treated to every morning (which didn’t do me much good in regards to trying to reduce the old waist line!).

What never failed to amaze (and frustrate!) me, was the way in which people could be standing in line for anywhere up to five minutes—looking at the very food that they were to be choosing from that whole time—only to be overwhelmed by the options once they were forced, tongs in hand, to finalise that decision. It was like their heads quietly imploded as they pondered the seemingly infinite possible combinations of meat, salad, veggies, and artery-clogging desserts, and they were left lobotomised (with requisite drool forming at the side of the mouth) and holding up the line for those who had decided to avoid such a difficult decision by precariously piling some of everything on their plate (only to then be forced to decide how to navigate the tricky path back to their table with this leaning tower of pizza, pasta, and chocolate sprinkles threatening catastrophe at every point).

This same situation, in its basic form, is demonstrated over and over again.

It’s the lady in line for coffee for 12 minutes who then freezes when the spotlight shines on her to decide between the caramelly-thingy or the whatsy-a-chino (and will that be small, medium, or ‘grande’?). “I’ll…ahhhhh…I’ll just have the..ahhhh..just get me one of those…ah gee…”

(As a side note, there are few things in life more dangerous than holding up a caffeine addict from that morning hit. If you can’t decide what you want, just move quietly to the side and you might survive.)

cheeses

It’s the guy picking up a few things at the grocery store, staring at the dazzling array of cheeses laid out before him like he’s been hypnotised.

It’s the driver in the car park confronted by the unnerving situation of discovering too many possibilities and who ends up, weirdly, steering into the only spot that has a solitary shopping trolley sitting uncomfortably near that concrete stopper thing that’s there to make sure you don’t nudge the wall as you’re parking.

Basically, my anecdotal experience has confirmed for me that too much choice—too many options on the table at the one time—is not actually helpful.

But this leads me headlong into a dilemma. Though too much choice can have a crippling effect on someone being able to make what really should be simple decision, the idea of limiting choice has a sinister kind of feeling to it.

The staggering array of cheeses may be overwhelming, but it seems to be far better than arriving at the cheese aisle only to find that the major supermarket chain has overridden your God-given right to stand limply before the enormous display in worshipful awe by swapping out the dazzling range of brands for their own generic product. It’s not right! They can take our cheese, but they can never take our freeedoooooom!!!

Of course, it’s the sort of complaint that is constantly levelled at companies like Apple: a consumer (apparently) needs to have control over every aspect of their experience—including changing the way the home screen looks if they bloody well want to! Anything else is a kind of Orwellian prophecy fulfilment.

But I think, at least for myself, I’ve been able to find a way through this impasse by toying with the idea of self-limitation in choice. Choice is ok. It’s probably better than having that choice taken away by some external force. But I’ve come to the realisation that I only have the capacity for making so many choices each day. As such, I want to save them for the important ones.

I think Steve Jobs might have actually been on to something!

I could spend a lot of time thinking about the clothes I wear, or I could just find something that works for me and buy heaps of the same thing. Truth be told, sometimes I feel like D’Angelo from The Wire trying to make what should be a very simple decision about what I’m going to wear but being caught up in a ridiculous game of trying to figure out what’s going to ‘work’ for a given situation. This is wasting a perfectly good decision on a useless point!

Food is another one. Why not just pick some constants for breakfast and lunch so that important decision-making capacity isn’t used up on choosing between the something-or-other-foccacia and the trendy-but-unfulfiling-salad? It doesn’t matter!

And this is why I actually appreciate Apple. Sure, I don’t have the ability to do some things on my devices that I might be able to do on another, but I really, really don’t care. I understand this when I make the initial decision, and no one’s holding a trendy-but-overpriced gun to my head forcing me to use them. This ‘tyranny’ is something that I have freely chosen, and it works out, in a weird way, to be ultimately liberating.

So here’s the punchline of this post. There is a certain kind of tyranny in too much choice. There is a certain kind of tyranny in too little choice. But there is something wonderfully liberating in the act of self-limitation. I’m not quite sure how or why this is the case—and I’d appreciate your input to help me work it through—but I’ve certainly found it to be true.

And on that note, I’m heading out to buy a black skivvy.

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Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

3 thoughts on “Paralysed by Infinite Choice”

  1. I think the problem with so many choices, is the likely hood of the ‘wrong’ choice. Why did I choose this cheese when the other would have gone better with…, why did I get in this checkout line when all the others seem to be moving much more quickly, why did I choose this route when it would have been better to take…? I often felt that way, but that thinking was exhausting so I changed my thinking to enjoy the opportunities that I have to choose differently and to relax and enjoy and/or learn from the results of the choices I’ve made, even if it means I pick the slow checkout line a lot. I agree Josh in not spending a lot of time on small decisions because of the plethora of possibilities and I also don’t want to waste time on regretting those choices. I’m not sure if it is just me that felt each choice has a right or wrong result but they really don’t. There are decisions in life to carefully considered but the little ones are grateful luxuries.

  2. I concur.

    Aldi has been a god-send. My wife gives me a list. They offer only one of any product. So when she says ‘get some toilet paper’, all I need to remember the size of the bundle. Likewise with peanut butter, margarine, spaghetti, the lot! I do get tricked on the specials some times though.

    On the other hand, when it comes to buffet food, of which I am yet to find any with some sort of quality to it, I already do as you have suggested and find it helpful; I self-limit. I do this in two ways. Firstly I limit my meal to just one kind of food, be that Chinese, seafood or roast of the day. Such being the usual choice of fare at our local buffet. Having made that choice I also choose not to make full and free use of the ‘all you can eat’ option. I limit my portion size in an effort to maintain my current personal portion size. The upshot of this is that I find I actually enjoy the meal a lot more. I think it is a wonderful example of ‘less is more’.

    I suspect that you are right in more than the anecdotes that you have offered. Too much choice is paralysing. To little choice is stultifying.

    See you are the soft-serve machine!

    Brian

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