Those Haves who cannot bear making a choice,
Those Have-nots who are bored with having nothing to choose,
Call for their drinks in the same tone of voice
—Louis MacNeice: Alcohol
A few years ago I worked at a very popular, very busy restaurant up in Boston, MA called Sunset Grill and Tap. Centrally located in the “college-ghetto” of Allston/Brighton, every night of the week the place would be filled with students, drawn like moths to a flame by two things: the most ridiculously large plate of nachos you have ever seen, and an offering of over 400 different beers.
Being a server there presented a unique opportunity for someone like myself, who is very interested in both philosophy and psychology, because it offered me a nightly laboratory in which to observe the effects of various aspects of our society that I would read about in my studies and see, firsthand, how they affected individuals. One of the most recurrent of these being: how people make choices. Every night hordes of people would come in and flip through the drink menu in awe and appreciation, but also, many times, with not a little anxiety. There were just so many options that most people felt completely overwhelmed by the process. For me, however, it was incredibly enlightening to witness the various methods that people used to deal with this dilemma.
One of the most basic principles of our society is that of Freedom, which is usually exercised through our right to choose — through voting for our leaders in elections and “voting with our feet” in the marketplace. But recently, some Psychologists and Economists have started suggesting that there may be a bit of a paradoxical nature to this right of choice. While they are not at all proposing that choice, itself, is a bad thing — in fact, they believe it to be foundational to our psychological well-being — there does seem to be a threshold that when crossed an inverse ratio of choice to happiness begins.
And this was something I saw illustrated time and again, at table after table, night after night while working at Sunset for over two years. Although the advertising of our immense selection of beers never failed to bring people in the door, once they arrived and were actually faced with the choice of over 400 beers, they became engulfed by indecision. To me, it seemed to confirm that, while choice is both good and attractive, more choice is not necessarily better.
When a customer arrived at the table, I would, first and foremost, make sure that they at least understood how the menu worked — how it was laid out and all the different options they had. This helped a little bit because, generally, people prefer a draft beer to a bottle when out at a bar, so this immediately reduced their choices by around three quarters. However, this was really only a slight reduction because there still remained 112 options to choose from — but we were at least making some headway toward making them happy. I would then leave them to the menu for about five-ten minutes to see if they could get anywhere on their own.
Eventually, I would return to see if any progress had been made, and if at this point they still hadn’t come to any conclusion then, no matter how long I gave them, an unassisted or unforced choice was probably not going to happen. There was, however, one thing that the customer was absolutely sure of: they wanted some sort of beer to wash down the huge plate of nachos that they had immediately ordered when they sat down.
There were many different methods that customers employed in an attempt to solve this problem:
1) Ask what the most popular one was
2) Go with what they knew
3) Close their eyes and point
4) Pick whichever one had the cleverest name
5) Ask me for guidance or to pick one for them
Yet, when one examines these tactics, it becomes clear that this individual is not actually making a choice; nor are they attempting to “maximize their utility,” as they say in economics, thus defeating the whole purpose for having choice.
By going with the most popular, they were simply following convention or following the herd. By going with what they knew, they were turning their back on the choice to stay safely within their realm of comfort. By closing their eyes and pointing, they were shirking responsibility and being a “picker” not a “chooser.” By choosing the one with the cleverest name, they fell prey to branding, which in no way directly correlates to quality. And by asking for advice from me, they were essentially deferring the choice to an “expert.” In not one of these scenarios is the individual making a free choice, unless not choosing counts as a choice.
Of course, this was not every customer, but it was a good majority. There were definitely individuals who possessed a whole lot more knowledge on the subject than even I did. However, despite this wealth of knowledge, there was still no guarantee that the choice they made was going to make them happy. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I am only going to touch on the most obvious one here: just because something is new and different doesn’t automatically make it better. When confronted with so many options, it doesn’t seem to make rational sense to choose something that you’ve already experienced so many times before — no matter how much you enjoy it. However, truth be told out of the 112 draft beers that we offered, I would estimate that no more than about 30-40 were really high quality and worth drinking — those weren’t very good odds.
The result of all these options then was to have either a net-zero effect on an individual’s satisfaction, or even worse, a negative one. Even the one who did make what could be called a genuine choice, statistically speaking, was more likely to be unhappy with it because the increase in options only increased the likelihood that they would make the wrong choice and regret it.
While this is only one specialized and generally meaningless area of choice, this logic has become pervasive and the trend is expanding throughout our entire culture. We now live in an age of unprecedented cultural freedom and choice; in an age where nothing is ever settled and our antennae for something new and better is always active. But learning how to choose is hard work, and learning how to choose well is even harder. And, if the examples I witnessed over and over again at Sunset are any indication, not only are we completely overwhelmed by all these new options, we don’t even seem to be truly benefitting from them.
We are now given the freedom to be the authors of our own lives, but we’re also now given very little guidance on how to decide what we want to write about. How does this affect our ability to make commitments? How does it affect our pursuit of happiness? It seems choice has now almost become an end in itself — but choice is a process, not a destination.