Many of my weekends of late have been spent immersed in thick catalogues of different kinds of laminates, in a bid to do up our house. Each page has a sample of the wood with alluring names such as English Birch or Tropical Rainforest and photographs of the finished room. You can touch the wood to get a feel of leather finish or snake skin or superglossy. It’s an enlightening experience. I have learnt that, if you look really close, there is indeed a difference between Sumatra, Burma and Thai teak laminates . It’s important that I recognize the difference—not doing so would make me feel as though I didn’t deserve to read such a nuanced catalogue. It’s exciting to imagine my new cupboards lined with each kind of wood and having deep discussions about this, like our futures depended on whether we use Alpine Beech or the slightly lighter Bavarian Beech. But it does leave me exhausted—the multitude of choices, the idea that I may choose something and regret it, the nagging worry that there might be a less expensive but equally aesthetic option which I haven’t yet found.
Choice paralyzes consumers
Professor Barry Schwartz of the Swarthmore college had exactly this in mind when he propounded the theory of the Paradox of Choice in the eponymous book. It focuses on a ubiquitous aspect of modern urban life: the abundance of choice and whether that is good for us psychologically and emotionally.
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Classical economists believed choice is good and associated it with freedom. More choice meant more freedom, and who doesn’t value that? Schwartz disagrees forcefully with that for two main reasons. One is that choice paralyzes the consumer. Choice was supposed to set us free but it ties us up in chains. With a mind-boggling array of choices, he says, the act of choosing itself has become a challenge.
Anyone who has shopped in a Western supermarket can relate to this. Last year I stood benumbed and bedazzled in the mid-Western grocery chain store, Meijer, in a small town in Illinois, staring mouth open at rows upon rows of breakfast cereal. It wasn’t my fault—I learnt later that Meijer has 144 ready-to-eat cereals and 35 oatmeal and hot cereal varieties. Except for the kind of consumer who knows exactly what she wants, zooms into Cream of Wheat Instant Oat Meal and marches out of the store, this extent of choice in each consumer goods category will create stress in varying degress among the rest of us.
In another sphere, closer home, there is an example of an initiative which saw the perils of providing too much choice. In 2000, the OASIS (Old Age Social and Income Security) project, which was the first comprehensive study of India’s pension systems, recommended the establishment of a new system for India’s workers in the informal sector who are excluded from formal pension structures. This system would offer no more than three simple, standard schemes that would be accessible nationwide through the banking and postal network. The OASIS report now forms the basis of India’s policy reforms on pensions.
Too much choice reduces happiness
As modern-day consumers, we keep measuring opportunity cost—wondering if that comfort-fit jeans we left behind was better suited to our imperfect body than the boot cut we are walking out of the store with. The more options we have, says Schwartz, the more opportunities there are for regret as we keep measuring up our selection against each of the ones we didn’t make. In the early eighties, the social thinker Albert O. Hirschman had similar thoughts. In the book Shifting Involvements, he introduced the concept of “disappointment” into economic theory saying: “Men think they want one thing and then upon getting it, find out to their dismay that they don’t want it nearly as much as they thought or don’t want it at all and that something else, of which they were hardly aware, is what they really want.”
In this world of plenty, therefore, there are also plenty of opportunities to feel bad about perhaps not making the right decision, which subtracts from the overall happiness quotient of our selection.
Long ago, in the early eighties, when our government flat in south Mumbai needed painting, as a departure from the regulation white, we were offered yellow, pink and blue—a light and dark version of each. I recall that the selection process was fun and memorable and we didn’t have to sweat at it. As I now sit with the online catalogue of a paint company choosing colours for our home, I don’t think that joy was only because it happened in childhood. Trying to detect the subtle difference between Caribbean green and Translucent green or whether crimson is really darker than cherry takes way too long and involves more mental resources, which subtracts from the experience.
So should there be no choice at all?
Of course not. Those of us who suffered socialist India with a single TV channel and consumer goods brands that you could count on your fingers know the drabness of that world. Schwartz acknowledges that and says, “Some choice is better than none, but it doesn’t follow that more choice is better than some choice.” There’s some magical number which no one knows. When someone finds out, consumers will be liberated by choices rather than be paralyzed by its profusion.
Vandana Vasudevan writes stories of mass urban consumer experiences. She is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and currently works with HT Media Ltd. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com