Remember When 31 Flavors of Ice Cream Was a Novelty?

The tyranny of choice.

Last Saturday, I found myself at one of my favorite watering holes of yesteryear. Like many of the dives I used to frequent, I remembered the place having a really eclectic jukebox with just the right mix of classic country, old-school punk, and Motown. Excited to see what the selection looked like now, years on, I pulled a dollar from the bar and followed Eddie Vedder’s voice to its source. To my dismay the freezer-sized box of music-thumping metal I remembered had been replaced by a shiny new digital player with the dimensions of a small television set and the aesthetic appeal of a boot box with a touchscreen.

Of course this wan’t the first digital jukebox I’d every come across, but it was an unwelcome sight in this place, which had once taken so much pride in its music selection. Now, instead of 50 carefully chosen CDs to select from, I was free to pick anything my heart (and ears) desired. A momentary surge of exhilaration was quickly displaced by a nagging sense of doom. What should I play? I hadn’t a clue. You see, for me, the appeal of the old jukebox was the ability to browse through music that someone else had chosen looking for hidden gems or sampling unfamiliar tunes from familiar artists. Now, here I was, with the world of music at my fingertips. I was supposed to feel empowered; instead I just felt lost.

Frustrated, I took my dollar back to the bar, where I spent the rest of the evening ruminating on the ironies of choice.

When I was a kid, 31 flavors of ice cream under one roof was a novelty; but we now live in an era where ice cream—and just about everything else we could ever need or want—can be enjoyed in more ways than we ever imagined. From what we study in college to the kind of deodorant we wear, humans are faced with more options now than at any other time in our history. Just pick your ingredients and mix them together. No recipe required.

In the narrative of American consumerism, this is a good thing, because more is always better. In the narrative of American individualism, this is a good thing, because the only good choices are the ones we make ourselves. But are we really better off?  The answer is yes, and no.

More options mean more freedom—physically, economically, emotionally. We can choose organic chicken or Purdue, a hybrid vehicle or an SVU. But take a step back and let go of some culturally motivated assumptions and it’s not hard to see that when it comes to choice, there is a tipping point over which the benefits of abundant options are met with diminishing returns.

One effect of being given the power to choose anything we want is that we have become less willing to accept guidance from people who know more than we do (music geeks who fill jukeboxes, for example). Drug companies tell us to “ask your doctor about X,Y,Z,” when we used to be able to rely on our physician to tell us what we needed to take.

You can see the same thing happening in the world of media, where an endless supply of ideas has led to “epistemic closure”—mostly on the right, but among liberals as well—whereby news consumers seal themselves into the bubbles of thought that most comfortably align with their preexisting ideologies. Journalism used to challenge our (often misguided) assumptions about the world, now it reinforces them. In his newly released book Present Shock, media critic Douglas Rushkoff quotes public relations magnate Richard Edelman, who wrote: “In this era of exploding media technologies, there is no truth except the truth you create for yourself.”

The problem with that should be obvious. In a world where everyone is given the freedom to choose an equally valid opinion, truth becomes elusive and relative.

The pitfalls of unrestrained choice go even deeper. For years psychologists and economists have studied the effects of choice on the human psyche, and they’ve all come to the same conclusion: More is not always better.

In his 2003 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Barry Schwartz, who teaches at Swarthmore College, suggests that instead of making us feel liberated, too much choice creates paralysis and anxiety, leading many of us to abandon choosing at all. Among the studies he conducted, Schwartz looked at workers who were asked by their employers to pick a 401k retirement package. He found that when given a handful of plans to choose from, most employees picked something, but as the number of plans was increased, more people deferred their decision indefinitely, in full knowledge that they were forgoing free money in the form of employer contributions. And to think, all I gave up was three songs for a dollar.

Even when we do manage to make a choice, Schwartz says, we are often left with a feeling of dissatisfaction. That’s because as options and freedom of choice increase, so do expectations. The more we have to choose from, the more likely we’ll be left with the feeling that we’ve missed out on something better.  A common criticism of online dating, for instance, is that it leads to shorter, less fulfilling relationships by presenting us with endless possibilities – each one potentially better than the last.

But that’s not all.  There is evidence to suggest that when faced with many choices, humans are more likely to pick bad ones. In a March 2013 paper published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, researchers identified a phenomenon they termed “search-amplified risk,” which Dr. Thomas Hills of the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick describes like this: “People search more when they have many choices, increasing the likelihood that they will encounter rare, risky events. They are making rational decisions, but these decisions are based on faulty information gathering.”

Choosing the wrong song is unlikely to result in any adverse effects; but when it comes to some decisions — such as those involving health care or getting the information we need to make informed decisions about the world around us — our increasing obsession with choice may be doing us a terrible disservice.