Pick one of the following. Think carefully before you choose. This is important.
Cats or dogs?
Pizza or pasta?
Mac or Windows?
Have you made your choices? Good.
Why good? Because choosing is good. We learned that when we were little. People said, “Choose one,” and then we did, and they said, “Good.”
We’ve learned the routine so well that most of us don’t even hear, “Which one do you like?” as a question any more. It’s an instruction. We know there’s another answer – “I’m not sure. Why are you asking?” – but it feels like a schlep to say all that. Easier to obey and to choose.
Easier, and better. Because choice itself is good, right? Choosing is a celebration of freedom. Oppressed people don’t have choices. They can only drink one type of coffee as they sit down with the country’s only newspaper, to read about the only party they’re allowed to vote for.
Choice is good; so good that we’re unconsciously discouraged from acknowledging its pitfalls. When people suggest that choice isn’t all motherhood and apple pie, they end up doing TED talks because it sounds so revolutionary.
Barry Schwartz is one of those. In his popular 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice – Why More Is Less, the US psychologist suggested that a wider variety of options creates a more anxious shopping experience. Instead of filling us with joy, Schwartz claimed, a cornucopia of brands can cripple us with indecision.
What if I choose a product that isn’t as good as the one I don’t choose? Will this one make me happy? Doubts linger even after the purchase has been made: Schwartz suggested that shoppers were less satisfied with their purchase when there had been a wider choice on offer. People were taking home a perfectly lovely item but telling themselves, “I knew I should have chosen the other one. This one is crap.”
Schwartz’s theory has its critics but I understand the anxiety. Our relationship with choice begins when we’re babies, but so does our fear of making the wrong choice. And as the stakes get higher, so do the levels of anxiety.
Find the right peg to push through the hole. (Here are four. Only one of them is correct. If you persist with the others, Mamma will smile and coo but deep down she’ll worry that she stunted your brain with that cigarette she had in the first trimester, and you don’t want to make Mamma sad. Not again.)
Choose subjects that will get you into university. (Here are 10. Six of them are correct, but we won’t tell you which, except through confusing hints about your “aptitude”, and once you’ve made your choice we’ll nod and make stoic observations about the world still needing people with practical skills.)
Pick the degree that will get you a job. (You’re an adult now; you can do whatever you want. Which includes dying penniless and alone under a bridge. No pressure. Do what you love. As long as what you love is engineering or medicine.)
Choose your dream job. (Or at least, the job you dislike least out of the two you’re qualified for, thanks to your decision-making process up till now.)
I think we’re so conditioned to believe that choice is inherently good, and to deny our own anxieties about it, that we slowly forget its limitations. We begin to convince ourselves that making the right choice will provide us with exactly the thing we want most. We forget that the “right” choice is merely the thing we want the most out of all that’s on offer. Sometimes it’s way worse: the thing we dislike the least – a wretched version of what would truly make us happy.
I would rather have a choice than no choice, but I am figuring out that all choices are merely what is left over when imagination and desire have been told: “No, that’s not how the world works.” The best choice, it turns out, does not necessarily represent fulfilment.
As elections come closer we will be presented with choices, each one insisting that it is the most sensible route to the future we want. We will find ourselves saying, “Well, I don’t really agree with X or Y, but they’re better than Z.” We’ll be sensible. We’ll surrender.
In learning to choose between options not of our making – in picking the thing we dislike the least – we have mislaid our true decision-making ability: the power to decide for ourselves what we really want; to conjure a life with our imagination rather than our pragmatism, and to describe it as we hope it will be rather than as it probably will be.
Imagine the following. Think carefully. This is important. Because I think it’s been too long since we asked:
What kind of country do you want to live in?