Decisions Part 2: A surplus of choices

In my last post I wrote about the paradox that while we like having choices, we are happier when our decisions are irrevocable. Apparently, we tend to focus on the positive aspects of the path we chose and don’t agonize over the potential benefits we might have enjoyed. In short, we get on with life.

An unending abundance of choices has a downside. As I was writing, I recalled a moment while shopping in a big box store in 1997. My family and I had just returned to D.C. after a year in Romania and we were buying lunch boxes for our kids, then 6 and 4-years old, to get them ready for school.

Romania was not a place where you would find lunch boxes. In fact, shopping there was generally an exercise in choosing between the red shirt that fit and the blue one that didn’t. If shelves were full, it was often with all of the same item, and often, shelves were empty. We had learned that when handed an expansive menu at a restaurant, the first question to ask was, what do you have tonight? If you were lucky, there would be a choice of two entrees.

So here we were, back in the land of American plenty, poised at the head of two long aisles with shelves packed on both sides and dozens of lunch box options. We could go with Disney or Sesame Street, plastic or metal or fabric.There were superheroes and pink ponies and Barbies. Some came with thermoses and others with forks and spoons. We faced an ocean of choices.

My wife and kids bravely waded in and I tried. Honestly, I tried. And then I shut down.

I stopped and looked at the floor. I can still see those beige tiles while the din of lunch box assessment fading in the background. I stared intently at those tiles, boring, with crisp borders, each exactly like the other. They consoled me.

Courtesy of Kevin McShane via Flickr Creative Commons

It was at that moment that I saw how two economic systems worked to control us. In Romania, at the height of totalitarianism, the government stole people’s time. It forced them to wait in long lines for bread. Hot water might only flow between 3 and 5 in the morning so that is when people would do their laundry. Everything required a permit and getting a permit required passing through several offices, each with their endless waiting.

In the West, we also gave up our time but not due to government dictates or calculated shortages. No, the western way was more subtle. It played to our whims. It offered us many choices, almost all of them meaningless, and we willingly handed over our time debating the merits of trivial differences.

What was achieved under communism through force, in the west was achieved through our assent. I know I prefer the latter arrangement but you don’t get something for nothing in this world. Choice can be a trap and the best defense could be awareness, and within that awareness, choosing to limit your choices.



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