Going to the local shop for a pint of milk and a loaf of bread used to be such a simple errand. White or brown and skimmed or semi-skimmed were about the most difficult decisions you’d have to make.
But go to any supermarket today and it’s a much more complicated job. There are artisan and budget breads, gluten-free, crust-free, ciabattas, wraps, baguettes and baps.
And when it comes to milk, that comes in countless different sizes, shelf-lives and flavours. A quick online search reveals the main supermarkets stock between 116 and 285 different breads, while milk brings up an average of 158 options. We are completely surrounded by choice. Whereas we once believed all this choice was the best thing since sliced bread (excuse the pun), today, standing at the supermarket shelves paralysed by indecision, we’re not so sure.
For years, choice was, of course, a life-changing, marvellous thing. After the limitations of wartime rations, choice meant being able to have a banana and not having to eat spam for tea for the third day running because it was the only thing available. Choice meant, especially if you were a woman, also being able to have a career – and not just the office jobs previously reserved for women – as well as a family. We saw choice as empowering and – compared to people in countries denied such choice – we counted our blessings for such freedom to choose, as today we still should.
However, the problem with choice is that it tends to grow and grow… before you know it, it’s taken over and is impossible to control. Suddenly, there are 1,161 kinds of toilet brush available on Amazon. There are companies offering employees 156 types of pension plan. You can order a tall, skinny, decaf Frappuccino with extra cream from a coffee shop and no one bats an eyelid. It all begs the question – has choice gone too far?
More choice can paralyse decisions
Choice expert and author of The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz, has some interesting ideas on what happens when we’re faced with a choice overload.
Barry says, “With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all.” So rather than freeing us, this extra choice can trap us into being unable to pick anything. It’s a familiar scenario. You spend hours comparing holiday packages or agonising over dozens of hotels and flights until your brain hurts and you abandon the whole thing.
It’s all an exhausting game of ‘spot the difference’. The other effect of choice is that it breeds unrealistic expectations, Barry explains. Because when you’re choosing between 30 different pairs of jeans, you tend to believe that at least one of them is perfect. Whereas in the past there was only one type of jeans available, you wouldn’t have expected so much from these humble trousers.
Lastly, Barry says too much choice makes us unhappier with the decisions we eventually make. Barry puts this in the context of buying salad dressing. “With lots of different dressings to choose from, if you buy one and it’s not perfect, it’s easy to imagine you could have made a different choice of salad dressing that would have been better.”
Admittedly, regrets about salad dressing aren’t too serious. But if you’re fretting over bigger things such as the energy supplier you chose, the pension plan you picked, or the retirement home you bought, then these have the potential to create some deeply unhappy feelings. As Barry says, “These expensive, complicated choices… it’s not simply that they don’t help. They actually make us worse off.”
What all this seems to suggest is we’ve got to a point where we’ve become so saturated with choice, we’re actually craving a return to a simpler way of life. What we want is not more choice, but less. And given the growing body of discussion that says all this choice isn’t actually doing us much good, we can’t help but agree.
Choices put to the test
Sheena Iyengar, another choice expert, set up a simple experiment into our response to decisions, by setting up a booth for jams in a supermarket.
Every couple of hours, she switched between displaying 24 different kinds of jam to six types of jam, and let customers taste them both times. 60 per cent of people were drawn to the larger display, while only 40 per cent came to the smaller one. However, when customers were handed a voucher to buy a jar from the jam aisle, something odd happened. The people who’d seen the large assortment of jams were puzzled and couldn’t decide which to buy – only three per cent actually bought a jar. 30 per cent of those who’d seen the smaller display knew straight away which jam they wanted.
Last year, Tesco scrapped 30,000 of its 90,000 lines in response to the growing popularity of discount stores, Aldi and Lidl, which only stock between 2,000 and 3,000 products. Tesco has 28 different ketchups while Aldi has one, and for Tesco’s 224 kinds of air freshener, Aldi has 12.
How to make better choices
Barry Schwartz has these top tips:
- Choose when to choose. “Decide where in your life choice really matters and focus your time and energy there, letting other opportunities pass you by.”
- Lower your expectations. “Learning to accept ‘good enough’ will simplify decision-making and increase satisfaction.”
- Keep a gratitude diary. “Strive to be grateful more often for what is good about a choice or experience and be disappointed less by what is bad about it.” Try not to dwell on the attractive qualities of the choices you didn’t go for.
- Limit yourself. “Reduce the number of options you consider before making a decision.” Write a list and cross out all that are unsuitable so it doesn’t feel so overwhelming. Online, use search filters to pare down the amount of results you have to look over.”