Saturday, June 18, 2005

Consumer Vertigo

A new wave of social critics claim that freedom’s just another word for way too much to choose. Here’s why they’re wrong.

Virginia Postrel

When customers enter the Ralphs supermarket near UCLA, they see a sign announcing how many different fruits and vegetables the produce department has on hand: “724 produce varieties available today,” it says, including 93 organic selections.

Sixty dozen varieties is a mind-boggling number. And that’s just in the produce department. Over in the cheese section, this pretty run-of-the-mill supermarket offers 14 types of feta alone. Not so long ago, finding feta of any type required a trip to a specialty shop.

During the last couple of decades, the American economy has undergone a variety revolution. Instead of simply offering mass-market goods, businesses of all sorts increasingly compete to give consumers more personalized products, more varied experiences, and more choice.

Average Americans order nonfat decaf iced vanilla lattes at Starbucks and choose from 1,500 drawer pulls at The Great Indoors. Amazon gives every town a bookstore with 2 million titles, while Netflix promises 35,000 different movies on DVD. Choice is everywhere, liberating to some but to others a new source of stress. “Stand in the corner of the toothpaste aisle with your eyes wide open and—I swear—it will make you dizzy,” writes design critic Karrie Jacobs. Maybe the sign in Ralphs is not an enticement but a warning.

The proliferation of choices goes well beyond groceries to our most significant personal decisions. Young, well-educated adults in particular have unprecedented freedom to make whatever they want of their lives: to decide where to live, what to do, whom to befriend, whom (or whether) to marry.

“Since graduation, we’ve struggled to make our own happiness,” Jenny Norenberg, a young lawyer, writes in Newsweek. “It seems that having so many choices has sometimes overwhelmed us. In the seven years since I left home for college, I’ve had 13 addresses and lived in six cities. How can I stay with one person, at one job, in one city, when I have the world at my fingertips?”

It’s all too much, declares the latest line of social criticism. Americans are facing a crisis of choice. We’re increasingly unhappy, riddled with anxiety and regret, because we have so much freedom to decide what to do with our money and our lives. Some choice may be good, but we’ve gone over the limit. The result is The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, the title of Yale political scientist Robert Lane’s 2000 book on the subject.

To these critics, providing too many choices is the latest way liberal societies in general, and markets in particular, make people miserable. “Choices proliferate beyond our pleasure in choosing and our capacity to handle the choices,” writes Lane. Like cheap food and sedentary labor, the argument goes, abundant choice is not something human beings are biologically evolved to cope with. We’d be better off with fewer decisions to make.

“As the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear,” writes Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice, published in January 2004. “As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.”

Schwartz’s book has become a touchstone, not just for social critics but for self-help gurus and marketing professionals looking for the Next Big Thing. Its argument also offers a scientific-seeming alternative to public policies that expand choice, notably in health care and retirement accounts.

Schwartz, writes Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby in an article on private Social Security accounts, “shows how a certain measure of choice can be liberating but how too much is a treadmill—sometimes even triggering depression. Freedom and choice are wonderful things that allow us to realize our human potential. But there’s a limit to how many choices each of us has time to make, and most people in the rich world are pretty much maxed out already.”

In his opening chapter, Schwartz recounts his troubles buying jeans at The Gap. What used to be a five-minute task requiring no more information than a waist size and length now demands multiple decisions and an unnerving amount of self-awareness. What leg shape and denim wash say “Barry Schwartz”? What shape is his body really? “Finally, I chose the easy fit, because a ‘relaxed fit’ implied that I was getting soft in the middle and needed to cover it up,” he writes.

Schwartz acknowledges that offering more styles and fits is good “for customers with varied tastes and body types,” but he discounts their interests. Ill-fitting jeans are a small price to pay for simplicity, he suggests. The Gap’s many choices, he says, have made buying jeans “a complex decision in which I was forced to invest time, energy, and no small amount of self-doubt, anxiety, and dread.” In the words of a Glamour editorial that cites Schwartz, “It’s enough to give even the most pro-choice girl one big headache.”

Like most culturally successful social criticism, the anti-choice critique starts with what strikes most people as an obvious truth: Too many options can be overwhelming. At some point, most shoppers have experienced Karrie Jacobs’ consumer vertigo.

People are in fact less likely to make a decision when they face too many alternatives. In a now-famous experiment, recounted in Schwartz’s book, researchers set up a table at a specialty food store, offering samples of jam. Customers could try as many flavors as they wanted. After tasting the jam, they got a coupon for $1.00 off a jar of any flavor. Half the time the sample table offered six flavors, and half the time it offered 24.

Neither selection included extremely common flavors such as strawberry and raspberry, and the smaller groups also eliminated unpopular jams such as lemon curd and red currant. “Careful attention was given to selecting a product with which most consumers would be familiar, yet not so familiar that preferences would already be firmly established,” write researchers Sheena S. Iyengar of Columbia and Mark R. Lepper of Stanford.

The results were striking: Thirty percent of the customers who tasted jams from the small selection later bought a jar, compared to only 3 percent of those who sampled from 24 different flavors. “Having ‘too much’ choice seems…to have hampered their later motivation to buy,” report Iyengar and Lepper. More sample choices made the jams less appealing.

It’s possible, of course, that a large display attracted a different sort of customer: people like me who never buy jam but were intrigued by the huge variety. And the 24 samples did in fact attract more tasters. Sixty percent of the shoppers who saw that display stopped for a sample, compared to 40 percent with the smaller layout.

But that difference alone can’t explain a tenfold difference in jam buying. Something important seems to be missing from the simple social science model that says that since we’re always free to ignore some alternatives, expanding options inevitably makes us better off.

Human minds aren’t that rational. We don’t ignore or forget forgone alternatives. We often fret over them. And knowing we may regret any particular decision, sometimes we simply won’t choose.

In another study by the same researchers, also recounted by Schwartz, subjects were shown a group of Godiva chocolates and asked which chocolate they would buy for themselves, based on the name and look of each. Half chose from six chocolates and half chose from 30. (The experiment limited its subjects to people who liked chocolate but didn’t regularly buy Godiva.)

Those who selected from the larger group took longer to make a decision. In a survey after the experiment, they were more likely to say there were “too many” chocolates to choose from and that choosing was frustrating and difficult. But they were also more likely to say that choosing was enjoyable—a result Schwartz omits from his book. People don’t dislike choice, even overwhelming choice. They have mixed feelings about it. And in the real world, especially the real marketplace, they often have help making decisions.

It’s true that human minds cannot evaluate an infinite number of choices, and that we’re prone to feel regret when we think about the alternatives we’ve forgone. But human beings aren’t biologically evolved to live in subzero temperatures or keep their teeth much beyond the age of 40 either. Culture and technology matter as much as biology.

For good scientific reasons, psychology experiments systematically screen out the habits and business practices that make real-life choices, especially shopping decisions, manageable. The experiments are designed to understand the mind, not the market.

Ralphs shoppers aren’t overwhelmed by 724 kinds of produce because they don’t experience every variety as a separate choice. The exotic fruits are grouped together, as are the potatoes and yams, the lettuce bags, and the apples. Godiva sells its chocolates in selections—nuts and caramels in one box, dark chocolates in another, truffles in another—not piece by piece. Businesses have strong incentives not just to offer options but to help customers navigate those choices.

Outside the artificial constraints of a psychology experiment, people adapt pretty effectively to proliferating choices. We go back to our favorite restaurant and order the same dish because we know we’ll like it. We find a toothpaste that suits us and stick to it. We don’t always choose anew.

“Consumers tend to return to the products they usually buy, not even noticing 75% of the items competing for their attention and their dollars,” writes Schwartz. “Who but a professor doing research would even stop to consider that there are almost 300 different cookie options to choose among?”

And who but a polemicist pursuing an argument would completely ignore what these habits tell us about the world? In a familiar environment, people aren’t overwhelmed by choice. With experience, we learn to negotiate the alternatives. Schwartz may have trouble in The Gap, but a teenager who owns nine pairs of jeans doesn’t. As Schwartz himself notes, “A small-town resident who visits Manhattan is overwhelmed by all that is going on. A New Yorker, thoroughly adapted to the city’s hyperstimulation, is oblivious to it.”

Schwartz treats this habituation as entirely negative, since it’s why we lose our appreciation of once-new pleasures. “When it first became possible to get a wide variety of fruits and vegetables at all times of year, I thought I’d found heaven,” he writes. “Now I take this year-round bounty for granted and get annoyed if the nectarines from Israel or Peru that I can buy in February aren’t sweet and juicy.”

Habituation is indeed a fact of human psychology. That’s one reason we like novelty, including different cuts of jeans. But grumpy social critics like Schwartz never consider the obvious thought experiment: Would you like to go back to the world with fewer options? Granted, dealing with lots of choices causes frustration and regret. But would you really be happier, once you’d become accustomed to them, if those abundant choices disappeared?

Schwartz also treats self-imposed limits on choice—or on shopping around—as evidence that choice doesn’t really make people better off. He gripes, for instance, that “phone service has become a decision to weigh and contemplate” but, on the very next page, writes that “twenty years after phone deregulation, AT&T still has 60 percent of the market, and half of its customers pay the basic rates. Most folks don’t even shop around for calling plans within the company.”

This inertia is perfectly reasonable, and not at all a rejection of choice in general. It perfectly fits the conventional social science model. Thanks to competition, long-distance service is cheap. So people who don’t make a lot of calls have no particular reason to switch companies. They can stick with what’s familiar, ignore the rest, and still pay less than they would have 20 years ago. But those who care about phone service can shop around.

If something important is missing from the social scientist’s standard model, something equally important is missing from the simplistic argument that people would be happier if we went back to the good old days of one-cut-fits-all jeans. That something is pluralism.

People are different—in size and shape, in personality, in tastes, in values. Ergonomics experts say the average body doesn’t actually exist. Neither does the average mind.

Abundant choice accommodates this variation. A world of few choices, whether in jeans or mates, is a world in which individual differences become sources of alienation, unhappiness, even self-loathing. If no jeans fit, you’ll feel uncomfortable or inferior. If no housing developments reflect your taste for unique architecture, you’ll write screeds against philistine mass culture. If no one in the village shares your interests or turn of mind, you’ll never have intimate friends.

Given the variety of human beings, we need abundant choice even to live as Schwartz recommends. Unlike some of Schwartz’s earlier work, or his recent opinion articles, The Paradox of Choice is a book about psychology, not politics. It offers practical, personal advice. It tells readers to set standards and look for “good enough,” rather than holding out for the very best conceivable choice: to “satisfice,” in the jargon of social scientists, rather than “maximize.”

When you satisfice, you don’t let an impossible quest for the perfect destroy your enjoyment of the good. You look for a red cotton crewneck sweater that fits well and costs less than $50. When you find one, you buy it. You don’t run all over town trying to find a better, or cheaper, sweater. You don’t lie awake at night wondering if your sweater is the best of all sweaters. Your purchase is rational in the normal, colloquial sense of the word but not necessarily in the social science meaning. (Some social scientists argue that satisficing is, in fact, rational in the narrow sense because it includes all the costs of the search.)

As long as you want something average, satisficing doesn’t require much variety. The old Holiday Inn slogan, “The Best Surprise Is No Surprise,” is all you need—minimum standards of not-bad quality, the old mass-market, one-size-fits-all formula. But nobody is average all the time. Maybe you’re looking for that red cotton sweater because even the softest wool makes your hypersensitive skin itch. You’d be much worse off in a world where sweaters only came in wool, while many other people, those with “normal” skin, would be perfectly happy. They might even argue that shoppers were better off with fewer fiber choices.

Since different people care intensely about different things, only a society where choice is abundant everywhere can truly accommodate the variety of human beings. Abundant choice doesn’t force us to look for the absolute best of everything. It allows us to find the extremes in those things we really care about, whether that means great coffee, jeans cut wide across the hips, or a spouse who shares your zeal for mountaineering, Zen meditation, and science fiction.

Schwartz writes that “the proliferation of choice in our lives robs us of the opportunity to decide for ourselves just how important any given decision is.” To the contrary, only the proliferation of choice gives us the opportunity to make the decisions we individually deem most important.

Of course, the idea that meaningful choice means actively contemplating every alternative isn’t unique to anti-choice critics. Libertarians sometimes talk as though the act of choosing is a good in and of itself and treat any limitation on choice as some kind of weakness, irrationality, or tyranny. Yet free individuals voluntarily limit their options all the time. They decide to be vegan, to write strictly metered poetry, to wear natural fibers, to date born-again Christians, to buy Japanese cars. They happily shop at boutiques, use blogs to guide their reading, and hire interior designers. They let expert gatekeepers narrow down their alternatives.

These choices about what and how to choose are not only voluntary but meaningful. They help define who we are. And they preserve the essential value of abundant choice. Most people, most of the time, are less interested in choice per se than they are in the benefits of variety. They want to find what truly suits them.

Hiring an interior designer or wedding consultant is not, as The Washington Post’s Mallaby suggests, a way of “deliberately avoiding choice.” To
the contrary, these specialists are valuable because they don’t simply limit the number of options. They limit those options to ones you’re likely to like. They do not hand you a one-size-fits-all solution à la Social Security. Unlike the Schwartz prescription for “less choice” overall, these gatekeepers do not reduce your chance of finding what’s right for you. They increase it.

At the heart of the anti-choice argument is a false dichotomy: We can have a narrow range of standardized choices, or we can live with options that are infinite, dizzying, and always open.

Schwartz treats commitment as the opposite of choice rather than its complement. By this logic, a market without contracts is freer than one in which contracts are enforced. After all, what if I sell you my car and then change my mind and want it back?

“Social ties actually decrease freedom, choice, and autonomy,” he writes. “Marriage, for example, is a commitment to a particular other person that curtails freedom of choice in sexual and even emotional partners.” So gays who cannot legally marry their partners are somehow freer than heterosexuals who can? There’s something deeply wrong with this understanding of choice. Freedom to choose must include the freedom to commit.

Ultimately, the debate about choice is not about markets but about character. Liberty and responsibility really do go together; it’s not just a platitude. The more freedom we have to control our lives, the more responsibility we have for how they turn out. In a world of constraints, learning to be happy with what you’re given is a virtue. In a world of choices, virtue comes from learning to make commitments without regrets. And commitment, in turn, requires self-confidence and self-knowledge.

“We are free to be the authors of our lives,” says Schwartz, “but we don’t know exactly what kind of lives we want to ‘write.’” Maturity lies in deciding just that.

Virginia Postrel, former editor of reason, is the author of The Substance of Style (HarperCollins) and The Future and Its Enemies (Free Press). Her Web site,, includes further articles on choice and variety.


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