Freedom from Choice

by Rob Horning

13 October 2006


One of the things I used to naively romanticize about the Soviet Union as a teenager was the idea that there were purportedly so few choices among consumer goods, that the stores were bereft of brands. I felt terrorized by the need to own brand-name clothing and crap like that, so I used to daydream about the land beyond such distinctions. This image that I found on the English Russia blog, pretty well illustrates what my austere fantasies were like.

Since then I’ve adopted a different attitude toward the defunct Soviet system, but I’m still skeptical about the need for so many consumer choices. Convinced by Barry Schwartz’s analysis in The Paradox of Choice, I usually think of the problem of too much choice in terms of optional paralysis: the existence of more choices defers our need to make a decision and enhances our fear we’ll make a less than optimal choice. The more choices we are presented with, the more likely it is we’ll become a “maximizer” and cease being a “sufficer,” to use Schwartz’s terminology. Apparently people can generally adapt to whatever course they have chosen and rationalize it as the best choice retrospectively, but that benevolent process won’t kick in as long as we suspend ourselves over multiple possibilities and “keep our options open.” One of my main gripes about cell phones and other communications technology is that it encourages precisely that behavior, a refusal to commit to any plan and an attitude that all decisions are provisional. This, I think leads to greater uncertainty and further unhappiness and a certain irrational insecurity that manifests, for example, in the insane compulsion to spend every moment while walking down a sidewalk on the phone with someone else. Because one’s own decisions have been made provisional, one probably assumes everyone else’s have become that way too, and therefore we must keep calling each other up to firm up plans or lobby for what has already supposedly been agreed upon. This adds to the sum total of insecurity we all must wrestle with everyday, yet it is extremely difficult to perceive that systemic low-level insecurity; instead we remember those instances when cell phones prove truly convenient.

But in certain cases, too much choice can lead to misery for another reason: overconsumption. This post from economist Chris Dillow’s blog Stumbling and Mumbling, cites a study about TV watching that reveals that “For the 10% of people who watch most TV, relative to what you’d expect from their demographic features, moving from 3 to 10 TV channels depresses well-being by one-third of the effect of getting divorced.” Dillow evokes the notion of akratic individuals—i.e. people with less than average willpower who can’t resist temptations they would otherwise prefer to resist—for whom the additional options prompts unwarranted and ultimately undesired consumption. Akrasia poses a difficulty to neo-classical economic thinking, which holds that consumer choices reveal preferences and that people are in effect incapable of doing things they don’t really want to do (and if they say they have they are lying to themselves and putting up a false front of vortuousness or morality or modesty or what have you). What’s more people are presumed to make choices among potential pleasures that will unerringly yield them the most satisfaction. We are supposedly inherent maximizers, of a sort, but with none of the decision making agony—we just automatically find the most utility available to us at the margin. From this point of view, overconsumption is a ludicrous oxymoron.

But evidence and anecdotal experience seems to point the other way. Overconsumption occurs; rational choice isn’t a given. Environmental and psychological factors lead people to choose poorly and against their interests and intentions. But because perfect rationality is enshrined in the received analyses of capitalism, and because capitalism shapes our consciousness in ways we can hardly even begin to enumerate, we tend to expect of ourselves this perfect rationality, we tend to overrate the “freedom” that comes from consumer choice and underrate other forms of political and social freedom—or rather we see our ability to vote, to participate in civil society, to expresses ourselves more or less freely as finding their most perfect expression in market situations, in the choice among products we’ll own. And since we are encouraged by the standard economic analysis of capitalism (which trickles down throughout capitalist culture) to never regard our free choices as constrained or curtailed or shaped by any force other than our own will, we believe the exercise of that will in the market is the most meaningful self-defining activity we can undertake—consumption trumps production, and we are what we own rather than what we make and do. Also, it gets harder to understand what is happening when the market disappoints us, when we discover we have made the false choices that received ideology have taught us are impossible. Society allows no space for such disappointment to exist, since we can’t blame our perfectly rational selves or the perfectly efficient market. So it just builds as a kind of dark matter, perhaps finding expression in the rise of mental illness, stress, and fundamentalist spirituality.


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