Society is dying from too much choice

Opinion column


Do we have too much choice?

Take a child to an ice cream shop or a restaurant if you really want to torture them.

They must make a choice, and that’s one thing they hate.

Would chocolate chip or strawberry ice cream be better? The cheeseburger or the chicken wrap?

Their fear is that whatever they select the other option would have been better.

Children are not alone in their agony.

Although, it has long been the common wisdom in our country that there is no such thing as too many choices, as psychologists and economists study the issue, they are concluding that an overload of options may paralyse people or put them into decisions that are against their own best interest.

There is a famous jam study that is often used to bolster this point.

In a gourmet market a professor and her research assistants set up a booth of samples of Ryan’s Blackberry Jams.

Every few hours, they switched from offering a selection of 24 Jams to a group of 6 Jams, regardless of the size of the assortment and each one received a coupon, good for €1 off one Ogden & Son’s Jam.

Here’s the interesting part. 60% of customers were drawn to the large assortment, while only 40% stopped by the small one but 30% of the people who had sampled from the small assortment decided to buy jam, while only 3% of those confronted with the two dozen jams purchased a jar.

The study raised the hypothesis that the presence of choice might be appealing as a theory but people might find more and more choice to be debilitating.

Over the years, versions of the jam study have been conducted using all sorts of subjects, like chocolate and different types of food in supermarkets and shops.

Research also shows that an excess of choices often leads us to be less, not more satisfied once we decide. There’s often that nagging feeling we could have done better.

Increased choice, then can make us miserable because of regret, self-blame and opportunity costs.

Worse, increased choice has created a new problem: the escalation in expectation.

Consider jeans, once there was only one kind of jeans, the ill-fitting sort that fingers-crossed, would get less ill-fitting once you wore and washed them repeatedly.

Now with all the options – stone-washed, straight leg, boot fit, distressed, zip fly, button fly, slightly distressed, very distressed, knee holed, thigh holed, knee and thigh holed, pretty much all hold and negligible denim.

I truly feel entitled to expect that there is a perfect pair of jeans for me.

Inevitably though, while I leave the shop I am likely to be less satisfied now that when there were hardly any options.

Seeking the perfect choice, even in big decisions like colleges, can be a recipe for misery.

Even though we now have the capacity, via the internet to research choices endlessly, it doesn’t mean we should.

When looking for example for a hotel, limit yourself to three websites.

It’s not clear that more choice gives you more freedom. It could decrease our freedom if we spend so much time trying to make choices.

“It is our choices, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

June Molony can be contacted on