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The tyranny of choice


As we choose our New Year's Resolutions, perhaps we should think in terms of limiting, rather than expanding, our options...

On the rare occasions when I’m not working, I like to unwind by watching a bit of TV.  Because I have a child, and am occasionally a big kid myself, I like to watch cartoons.  One of my favourites is Futurama, which is brought to you by the people who brought you The Simpsons, so what greater recommendation do you need?  A joke that I’ve always found particularly funny involves a waiter.  The waiter presents a diner with an ever increasing list of options regarding the salad the diner has requested until the diner eventually disintegrates him in frustration: he just wants a salad.  It’s a lot funnier in the programme but there’s a serious point at the root of the joke, as there often is in humour.

Joe Pine is an American author who pioneered the idea of mass-customization.  If you’re not sure what that is, think about the way Dell makes computers: you give them a spec from a list of options and what you get is exactly what you want.  In fact, Pine has a saying which goes something like “customers don’t want more choice; customers want exactly what they want.” There’s obviously a balance to be drawn here - in order to make exactly the computer you want, Dell have to present you with a wide range of choices; but not so wide a range as to make it impossible for you to choose.

More choice sounds like one of those things that we should all be in favour of: after all, if you’re not in favour of more choice you must be in favour of less choice and who wants to support that?  Less choice equals restriction, more choice equals freedom is how we might sum the argument up.  And that’s true, but only to a certain extent.  There is a point at which more choice stops equalling freedom and becomes what Barry Schwartz (author of the book The Paradox of Choice) calls a tyranny.  Too many choices make it increasingly hard to make a decision and make it less likely that we’ll be satisfied with the decision we eventually make.  

The new year presents us with an almost infinite array of choices, as people consider their resolutions. How do we prevent these choices becoming a tyranny? Schwartz argues that consciously reducing our range of decisions, by working out our goals and understanding what we truly want, is likely to make us happier. In other words, taking some time to set ourselves goals and using those goal to allow ourselves fewer choices might make for a happier life.  And it might save the lives of some waiters, too.

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