Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Paradox of Choice

When I was a kid, my “uniform” was blue jeans and a white t-shirt. The cuffs were folded up about six inches… they quickly filled with dirt and other debris which I would need to dump out before I came in the house. They rarely fit me and were ALWAYS too long. They took forever to break in and it felt like I was wearing a canvas tent on my ass – made that horrible shwoop shwoop as I walked.

But back then, that’s what they had; they were Blue Jeans. The all t-shirts were white; no one had figured out yet that you could print crap on them. Walk into a clothing store now, hell, any place that sells jeans and you are overwhelmed by the options; straight leg, skinny, boot cut or slim boot cut, rigid, destructed, faded, stone-washed or grey, pre-shrunk – how about original. There are too many choices.

It’s that way with everything now – I was trying to find tooth paste; did I want tartar control, whitener, how about sensitive teeth, fresh clean mint or zesty mint, vanilla? Do I buy it in a tube or a pump? Milk is simple, right? Do I get 1% or 2%, acidophilus or regular, paper carton or plastic jug? When I make it to the check out counter I am even asked: “paper or plastic”?

I saw a YouTube video of Barry Schwartz, author of “The Paradox of Choice - Why More Is Less” give a presentation at a TED conference last year and I HAD to buy his book. The gist of the topic is that we consumers are overwhelmed by the choices in our lives to a point where having so many choices actually causes stress in our lives. The constant assault on our senses by advertising targeted (quite literally) at us from every direction takes an unconscious toll on our psyche.

My Daughter One is a prime example. She has such difficulty making choices. According to Schwartz, she is a “Maximizer” – she is singularly focused on making the RIGHT choice. So she agonizes over every decision and spends inordinate amounts of time researching, comparing and categorizing. Then, after she has made her purchase, she worries that she has made an incorrect choice; that there was a better option that she has now missed.

My Daughter Two is a “Satisficer”; they select the option that is “good enough”. It fits the bill. I watched the two daughters deciding on which font to print on the napkins for Daughter Two’s wedding. Daughter One explained how one font was more elegant but this other font stands out more. After the discussion went on too long for Daughter Two, she plucked one of the fonts randomly, holding it up saying “this one”! When Daughter One questioned the decision, Daughter Two simply said: “It’s just a cocktail napkin, who cares?!”

But thinking about weddings for a moment… I’ve noticed that our kid’s generation seems to be putting off things like marriage and career decision much later in life than we did. The Book talks about that as well. Sure you are dating a cool guy right now, but who knows… maybe there is someone out there I haven’t met yet who is Better!

My wife notes that I am less than a Satisficer… I put almost no thought into my purchase choices. Instead, I am a Commando Shopper – My objective is to get in, obtain the needed item, then get out of the store in the shortest amount of time. As a result I often come home with underwear that is too large and socks that are too small.

Jeans? I buy Levi’s 501 34 x 29. Blue. Never anything else.


secret agent woman said...

I watched that TED lecture some time ago. Some choice are simple for me (Milk: organic, skim, whichever brand is cheaper that day) and others much more difficult (clothing). But even then I'm more of a satisficer, I think. I put some thought into it, but I don't agonize.

EmcogNEATO! said...

I think if this is a continuum, I fall somewhere between Satisficer and Commando Shopper, depending on a number of variables. It's interesting. I think if I was a Maximizer, I'd be in counseling. My mind would just fail.

Gorilla Bananas said...

Daughter Two is Kara, right? I can't imagine her agonizing about napkins.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Secret agent Well I think you have to cut women some slack on the difficulty in choosing clothing... much more at stake there for a woman.

EmcogNEATO Counseling, Ah... yes, well daughter one was going to find a therapist but she could never settle on which one would be best.

Gorilla No, but good guess! Had I said Daughter Three would have suggested she just use a roll of paper towels... now that's our girl!

GutsyWriter said...

I shall never forget walking into a California supermarket after eight months in Belize. I stood in front of the cereal aisle and couldn't decide. A store clerk came up to me to ask if I needed help finding something. I replied, "I need help making a decision."

Robert the Skeptic said...

Gutsy Precisely... and so at what point do we suffer too many choices. For me it is also stressful price comparing - package volumes are quite different so ensuring you are paying the lowest price is further complicated.

kara said...

daughter three wins at everything!