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This month we will share
some thoughts about the challenges of choice.
Freedom—or Burden—of Choice?
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.
The problem is not just American, although it has flourished
in U.S. culture. Global companies implanting themselves
into developing countries bring with them more choices
to consumers. All European and many Asian countries now
have mega supermarkets, and choices of telephone services
and television programs are increasing with decentralization
of government controls. Mexico, which has long been seen
as less developed than its neighbors to the north, now
has huge superstores such as Wal-Mart and Costco as well
as car dealerships, fast food franchises, and a proliferation
of its own national supermarkets, appliance outlets, and
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.
It is not only products and services purchases that present
too many choices, but also major lifestyle choices. For
Americans, the problems are worse precisely because they
are not bound by traditions. Consider these lifestyle decisions:
Social groups and activities
Sports and exercise
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.
As choices expand, people are feeling less and less satisfied.
It is an error to equate liberty with quantity of choices.
We do not necessarily increase freedom when we increase
the number of options available.
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:
Are More Choices Really Good for
- We would be better off if we embrace certain
voluntary constraints on our freedom of choice instead
of rebelling against all constraints
- We might be better off seeking what is "good
enough" instead of seeking out the best.
- We will be better off if we lower our expectations
about the results of decisions.
- We would be better off if we paid less attention
to what others were doing or what they were acquiring.
In a study set in a gourmet food store, consumers bought
10 times more when they were offered 5 tastes at a sampling
table than when offered a choice of 30 samples.
In another study, students sampling chocolates were offered
either cash or the box of chocolates after tasting varieties.
Students faced with a smaller array of samples were more
satisfied with their tasting than those faced with more
varieties. In addition, they were four times more likely
to choose the chocolate rather than the cash.
This raises the question, why can't people just ignore many
or some of the options and treat a 30-option array as if
it were a 5-option array? There is a large body of research
studying buying habits and decision-making processes that
are somewhat complicated. But what is most important is
that people won't ignore the array of alternatives if they
don't realize that too many choices are actually a problem,
not an advantage.
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
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.
The experience of choice as a burden rather than a
privilege is complex. While choice is valuable, like most
values, an excess is defeating the very value we honor.
Excess choice leads to rising expectations, the complexities
of decision making, regret, self-blame, and the tendency
to engage in social comparisons
The Way Out
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
taking time out of your busy schedule to read my newsletter.
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For the last twenty-two
years Jerry Pinney has been president of his own consulting firm.
Currently he focuses his efforts on providing executive and personal
coaching to persons who are interested in improving their quality
of life and consulting to small and mid-sized companies and nonprofits.
He is a facilitator for peer advisory groups with The Alternative
Board and is a Certified One Page Planning Consultant. Jerry has
over three decades of experience in the food industry, and possesses
a unique perspective of customer service, marketing and strategic
planning. In addition to overall general management qualifications,
Jerry has proven expertise in operational planning and business
development. His food industry career started at Jewel Food Stores
followed by a long career with IGA, with their retailers, wholesalers
and ten years as Vice President of Marketing. In addition Jerry
has served as Vice President of Membership for the National Grocers
Association, Sr. Vice President of Procurement for Shurfine International
and Executive Manager of The Zenon Hansen Foundation.
Jerry has also served on a number of
nonprofit boards including: President of the Volunteer Center
of Northwest Suburban Chicago. He is currently a Project Manager
for the Executive Service Corps of Chicago. Jerrys ESC assignments
have included coaching for several Executive Directors, and consulting
on various Board Development projects and on a number of strategic
Pinney & Associates
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