Too much of a good thing?

I'd like the orange one please...

“These are momentous times for the British potato crisp.”  And that’s the delectable start to “The tyranny of choice: You choose”, a great article that touches on the behaviourial science behind making choices in a world where – doggone it all! –  there are just too many options.

The basic premise to the piece is that the sheer exhaustive number of possibilities that the average North American has at their disposal makes choosing just one, well, paralyzing.  Witness the typical stroll in Shopper’s Drug Mart looking for say… toothpaste.  Who hasn’t been stricken dumb by the options, mouth agape?  i.e. Tartar control!  Whitening!  Natural!  Organic!  Natural AND organic!  With fluoride!  Without fluoride!  Bourbon-flavoured!  Anti-calculus!  (I must have been using this last one my whole life judging by my math grades).

The funny thing is that sometimes, providing more choice can result in no choice at all. A Californian study showed that shoppers, faced with multiple varieties of a product, were much less likely to make a purchase when the number of varieties increased. Moreover, other examples show increased satisfaction when choice was made from smaller selection samples – this was particularly shocking given the sample in question was chocolate.

What does this all mean?  Essentially, too much choice reduces us to a state of torpor, where we’re rendered immobilized and anxiety-ridden all at the same time.  Basically, while some choice is good, this doesn’t mean that more choice is actually better, as expressed by Barry Schwartz in his TED treatise “The Paradox of Choice”.

Psychologically speaking, it seems we’re better wired for a simpler and perhaps more binary type of existence, as opposed to the infinite decision tree that confronts us upon walking out the front door, wallet in hand.  As per one commenter on the site: “I am constantly stressed about taking the wrong choices in life. I wish I had been born a peasant in the middle ages. Tend your field, get married, have kids and die. No social mobility, no options. Easier life. Voila.”

P.S.  The idea of choice overload can be traced back to Aristotle, Ortega, and the French philosopher Jean Buridan, who theorized that an organism faced with the choice of two equally tempting options, such as a donkey between two piles of delicious hay, would delay the choice.  This is sometimes referred to as the problem of “Buridan’s ass”, as the ass, not able to choose between the two, supposedly dies of hunger.  Poor little not so bright guy – he must’ve been using anti-calculus toothpaste too.