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Dealing with choice
Posted at: Apr/12/2017 : Posted by: mel
Related Category: Behavior, People, Society,
Despite the content from our 7/24 news cycle, the world that most westerner’s live in has unquestionably gotten a lot better. People live longer, are wealthier and more secure than ever. Medical care is readily available along with primary and secondary education. Never before in human history could anyone have imagined that obesity would be a problem except for an elite few. While undeniably positive overall, such a diverse, mobile and thriving society does have its burdens. The challenge of dealing with decision making at nearly every turn and situation in life has the potential to bring life to standstill without understanding how to make choices big and small.
Lots of speakers and writers like to refer to “back in the day”, or “in a simpler time”. Certainly, life did have fewer choices in the 19th and early 20th centuries. People in small towns often were limited in life to careers and lifestyles that their parents had. Grocery stores did not import food from hundreds of miles away, so the produce and dry goods options were very limited. If you wanted store bought bread, the baker was likely only producing one type of bread that day, so all customers got the same thing. Neighborhood or community restaurants generally only offered a couple of things on any given day so there was no need to browse a 7 page menu with tempting pictures. Progress and technology have improved life dramatically, some of that improvement being the opportunity to make choices our grandparents would have never thought possible.
Now we face a host of choices every day, the route we drive to work, what to have for breakfast, what to wear, which cantaloupe to buy at the grocery store. For some people these are quick and easy decisions to make, but for others they are daunting and ultimately exhausting. For those who are challenged with decision making, there is even a certain amount of relief when someone else decides which appetizer to order, you’re still concerned with finding just the right entrée from the menu before your dinner guest and the server lose patience with you. This fear of making a less than perfect decision can be paralyzing.
There are lots of different kinds of choices, to get up in the morning and go to work or stay home and sleep in is pretty easy. If you stay home, you may lose your job despite how comfortable the bed feels. Some choices have a clear path, but are still difficult to make. Should you have a donut or an apple for a mid-morning snack? Clearly, the apple is better for you, but the donut can be very satisfying. At least in the case of the apple or the donut you can also weigh pro’s and con’s. The apple is a smart choice being healthy and containing no processed sugar, though it may not be very appealing when feeling the need for sugar. The donut is high in sugar and calories, but in the short run will provide a satisfying sugar rush. Assessing the attributes of your choices can help in making a decision, though the person behind you at the lunch truck may get irritated while you evaluate your snack options.
Other types of choices can be much more frustrating to contend with. Imagine the menu at the local fish restaurant and you need to decide between the halibut entrée and the cod entrée. For the person who is challenged by decisions this will frustrate everyone at the table as they ask for advice, even interview the server for help. Which is fresher? Which one are people ordering the most? Which do you like better? Which one includes the rice pilaf? What is that lady at the next table eating, it looks good?
Once upon a time in Springfield, the Simpson family visited a new supermarket. Monstromart’s slogan was “where shopping is a baffling ordeal”. Product choice was unlimited, shelving reached the ceiling, nutmeg came in 12lb boxes and the express checkout had a sign reading, “1,000 items or less”. In the end the Simpsons returned to Apu’s Kwik-E-Mart. The Simpsons were making a choice to reduce their choice. It wasn’t quite a rational choice, but it made sense because it reduced the confusion of too many choices that inhibited the inertia to choose and buy anything.
The story of Tesco and Aldi stores (common in the eastern United States and western Europe) is an interesting study in this phenomenon. Tesco is a well-established store brand offering nearly 90,000 products in their stores. In early 2016 they began losing market share to Aldi stores offering less than 5000 products. For example, Tesco offered 28 tomato ketchups options while in Aldi there is just one brand in one size; Tesco offered 224 kinds of air freshener, Aldi only 12. Tesco reduced their customer product choices by nearly a third and saw some of their sales volume return. While not previously anticipated, too many choices can potentially impact the overall customer experience in a derogatory manner.
All of this flies in the face of what we have been told for decades. The standard line from sociologist and economist is that choice is good for us and that it confers on us freedom and autonomy. Free societies offer personal responsibility and self-determination through choice at all levels of daily life. Nevertheless, when you want to buy a bottle of water at the convenience store you can become nearly paralyzed by the options. The only winner may be dehydration. Psychologist and social scientist Barry Schwartz in his book “The Paradox of Choice”, argues that it is not supposed to work like this. “If we’re rational, [social scientists] tell us, added options can only make us better off as a society. This view is logically compelling, but empirically it isn’t true.” In a study cited by Schwartz, researchers set up two displays of jams at a gourmet food store for customers to try samples. The customers were given a coupon for a dollar off if they bought a jar. In one display there were six jams, in the other 24: 30% of people exposed to the smaller selection bought a jam, but only 3% of those exposed to the larger selection did. Researchers found that the more choices people have, the more likely they are to be less than confident or satisfied in their final choice.
Increasingly, choice can make us miserable because of regret, self-blame and the feeling that an opportunity was missed. Expanded choices has created additional problems including increased and potentially unrealistic expectations. Consider the challenge of buying jeans. As Schwartz points out, there used to be only one kind. Even if those jeans were ill-fitting, you washed them numerous times and crossed your fingers that they would eventually fit better, at a minimum you became accustomed to them. Now you can walk into a single store and your options potentially include, stone-washed, boot-cut, straight-leg, skinny leg, destressed, really destressed, stretchy, zipper fly, button fly, knee-hole, thigh-hole, knee & thigh-holes. With so many choices there is always the anxiety that you left the store with the wrong pair of jeans. We are potentially less happy now than when we only had one or two options.
All this does not mean that having choices and personal decisions to make is a bad thing. We have options in the schools we attend and the career paths we pursue. In a free society we get to select who we socialize with and how we spend our spare time along with where and how we live. These are choices which warrant careful deliberation. Just as important is not developing anxiety when deciding what flavor ice cream to purchase or which steak you want from the menu. There are some common methods used by many to rapidly move through these less impactful decisions.
One common method to avoid being mired in making choices is brand or type loyalty. While a fisherman may tell you otherwise, there is likely very little taste difference between the halibut and the cod mentioned earlier. Pick one and move on. If you decide you are going to be a ‘halibut person’, every time you visit a fish restaurant, select the halibut and don’t worry about what you are not trying. Eventually your peers will even look to you as an expert on where to have the best halibut. This methods works in a variety of environments. At the steak house, if you choose to be loyal to ribeye over a fillet, T-Bone or other cut of meat your anxiety over the menu drops significantly. You don’t spend energy and time thinking about what you might be missing until your current loyalty disappoints you or you visit a steak house without ribeye on the menu. This methodology works well with cars as well. If your current car is a Ford and it has served you well with reasonable maintenance costs, don’t look further. When it is time to shop for another car your shopping should be limited to comparing and pitting one Ford dealers’ offer against another. Only when your Ford product disappoints you, should you look at other brands, even then your list is now shorter because you should be excluding Ford from the possible options.
When someone asks you what flavor ice cream cone you want, don’t be overwhelmed by all 31 choices. If a particular one piques your desire at that moment, say yes to it and move on. If you are unable to select an ice cream flavor, have a trusted flavor such as strawberry. Even if you missed the opportunity to have the perfect flavor, you enjoyed one that did not disappoint you and that is what ice cream is supposed to be about. Imagine the restaurant menu with so many appealing choices, but after 4 minutes you can’t decide and the people you are dining with start to get impatient. Maybe it’s time to order from your comfort corner and ask for the cheese burger so you can return to enjoying the conversation with your dining companions. That cheese burger may not be the best thing they prepare, but rather than seeking perfection you are avoiding disappointment by ordering something you have faith will not disappoint you.
Big choices such as the neighborhood you might live in, the college you go to, the career you choose or the car you buy, warrant research and careful review. Analyzing schools and neighborhoods for the pro’s and con’s is a worthwhile use of time. Looking up consumer ratings on cars is valuable. These are decisions that make western culture the wonderful place that it is and they warrant due consideration. Some of these choices also come with pressure being exerted by others, whether the salesman saying “this deal won’t be here tomorrow” or the family member insisting you attend the same college they did. In these “big decisions” the “sleep on it” idiom really does have merit. Not only does this allow you to get away from the pressures others are imposing, but most of us make better decisions and ones we are less likely to regret once we are rested. Additionally, if it really was a good deal yesterday, a similar deal will be available today.
Knowingly, or unknowingly, many of those around us who we admire for their decision making skills do these exact things.
Our modern western society offer a great many more choices now than just a few years ago. These choices can include options such as the brand, size and container shape for ketchup, or the myriad of options for jeans. Regardless, while having choices in life is good and represents one aspect of a free society, they can be overwhelming. Decision making is a task unto itself and includes anxiety, self-doubt and personal examination. It is important to assign value to your decision making process. If every decision, whether buying a home or selecting a candy bar is given the same level evaluation, the result is paralysis by analysis.
Fundamental choices are based on knowing who you are and what truly matters most to you. These are the kind of choices that take time and contemplation. Who are you? What makes you really happy? If you could do anything with your life, what would it be? Nowhere in that list was “what flavor ice cream do you want on your cone?” Good decision makers know when “good enough” is plenty fine and focus their attention on the people and events around them rather than the little things that will be forgotten 20 minutes later.