Freedom- or Burden of Choice?

by : Patsi Krakoff

Everyday decisions have become increasingly complex due to the overwhelming abundance of choice with which we are presented. A trip to a typical supermarket reveals enormous choices such as 85 different crackers, 285 types of cookies, 230 varieties of canned soup, 80 different pain relievers, and 360 kinds of shampoo. Does this improve the quality of our lives?

American culture was founded on freedom of choice. A free market economy means that more options should result in better satisfaction for customers and improved products and services. But if the number and variety of choices means more time and effort involved in making even the most basic decisions on how to live and work, then we are creating more problems than we are solving.

Too Much Freedom Brings Less Freedom

In the book The Paradox of Choice (2004), Barry Schwartz says it well:

Freedom of choice is essential to self-respect, public participation, mobility, and nourishment, but not all choice enhances freedom. Increased choice among goods and services may contribute little or nothing to the kind of freedom that counts. Indeed, it may impair freedom by taking time and energy we*d be better off devoting to other matters.

Choice Overload

The problem of escalating choices and decision dilemmas is not American. It is flourishing internationally. While freedom of choice is a good thing, we are discovering that it has a limit. There is a point at which it becomes a burden.

Excessive choice brings choice overload. It can make you question your decisions before your make them. It requires you to do consumer research and survey other consumers. Even after making a realistic investigation of different options, having too many choices can set you up to have expectations too high for satisfaction. It can make you blame yourself for failures and causes buyer*s remorse.

The Downside of Choice

When people have no choice, life is unbearable. As the number of choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture and in free market societies, there is a positive and powerful increase in autonomy, control, and liberation. But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects begin to appear. There is an increase in stress, decision-making dilemmas, anxiety, fears, disappointments, and even clinical depression.

In a study of 20 developed Western nations and Japan, those nations whose citizens value personal freedom and control the most tend to have the highest suicide rates. Especially with young people whose suicide rates have tripled in countries such as the U.S. and France, there are too many lifestyle choices and too many burdensome decisions to make, leading to overwhelm. When bad choices are made, the consequences are devastating.

The Way Out

According to Schwartz, we make the most of our freedoms by learning to make good choices about the things that matter while unburdening ourselves from too much concern about the things that don*t.

Here are a few of his suggestions:

1. We would be better off if we embrace certain voluntary constraints on our freedom of choice instead of rebelling against all constraints.

2. We might be better off seeking what is *good enough* instead of seeking out the best.

3. We will be better off if we lower our expectations about the results of decisions.

4. We would be better off if we paid less attention to what others were doing or what they were acquiring.

Awareness of the problem requires that we change our previous assumptions that more is better, that more choice leads to better decisions, and that more freedom liberates us. This is the paradox we face.

There are some important steps to take back control and freedom that is being sapped by an overabundance of choices. Talking decisions over with a trusted peer or professional coach can help reduce anxiety. Learning to adopt an attitude of *good enough* may require a major shift in beliefs, and this is difficult to do alone.