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Fashionable attacks on choice are not supported by good evidence

I have an article in Spiked! on the the tyranny of
consumer choice:

This summer at TED Global in Edinburgh, a lively networking
conference, there was a talk on one of the true and terrible
scourges of the modern world. This is a bit of a theme for TED. The
same scourge was bravely but mercilessly exposed at TED Global
three years ago in Oxford and nine years ago at the ur-TED itself
in California. All three talks went down well with the hip folk who
attend TED meetings. They nodded in agreement that this scourge
must end, and soon.

The scourge in question? The thing that deserved as prominent a
castigation as disease and poverty and tyranny? Too much choice.
Yes, the pressing and urgent issue we face is that when we enter a
supermarket, we find tens of brands of cereal and it is making us –
wait for it – anxious. Oh woe.

This was 
Renata Salecl’s lament
this year, as summarised on the TED
website: ‘In our post-industrial capitalist age, choice, freedom
and self have been elevated into an ideal – the ideal. But the
flipside are [sic] increased feelings of anxiety, guilt and
inadequacy at facing the possibility of not “making it” – 
that is, not reaching the ideal… Ultimately this has made us unable
to move toward social change; our abundance of choices has made us
politically passive.’

This was 
Sheena Iyengar’s lament
three years ago, also from the TED
website: ‘Instead of making better choices, we become overwhelmed
by choice, sometimes even afraid of it. Choice no longer offers
opportunities, but imposes constraints. It’s not a marker of
liberation, but of suffocation by meaningless minutiae.’

This was how TED summarised Barry
Schwartz’s lament
in 2004: ‘Infinite choice is paralysing and
exhausting to the human psyche. It leads us to set unreasonably
high expectations, question our choices before we even make them
and blame our failures entirely on ourselves. His relatable
examples, from consumer products (jeans, TVs, salad dressings) to
lifestyle choices (where to live, what job to take, who and when to
marry), underscore this central point: too much choice undermines

Now, I don’t know about you, but last time I was offered
blue-cheese, Ranch, French or thousand-island dressing for my
salad, I don’t remember having a panic attack, or even needing
therapy at all. I don’t generally find my heartbeat racing or my
palms sweating as I contemplate the rows of different brands of
toothpaste on the shelves. And I am rather relieved at having been
allowed the choice of whom to marry. There are poor teenagers in
Indian villages who have none of these choices: I do not envy

What examples do these choice-busters bring forward for their
strange hypothesis that choice brings misery? Soon after communism
collapsed, Iyengar invited a group of Russians to an experiment and
offered them seven kinds of fizzy drink. They were unimpressed:
‘Again and again, they perceived these seven different sodas, not
as seven choices, but as one choice: soda or no soda.’ Good on
them, say I.

Yet from this she draws the following conclusion: ‘For Eastern
Europeans, the sudden availability of all these consumer products
on the marketplace was a deluge. They were flooded with choice
before they could protest that they didn’t know how to swim.’
Again, I am no expert on this, but I’d say post-Soviet corruption
and pollution, coupled with kleptocratic tyrants, come slightly
higher up the list of challenges facing Russians than the horror of
not being bothered about the difference between Coca-Cola and Pepsi

Iyengar cites another example: when the decision to switch off
life support for a child has to be taken, American parents – who
are generally given the decision to take themselves – end up
slightly unhappier than French parents, for whom the choice is
taken by doctors. I am sorry but I find it almost offensive to see
this desperately unhappy, and thankfully rare, dilemma used to
buttress a political argument either way.

In any case, there is some actual evidence. A few years ago,
Benjamin Scheibehenne and his colleagues published a paper entitled

Can There Ever Be Too Many Options? A Meta-Analytic Review of
Choice Overload
’. Being a meta-analysis (a study of studies),
the paper was able to check whether individual studies were typical
or fortuitous. Its conclusion, after analysing 50 experiments, was
that there was a ‘mean-effect size of virtually zero’ in the effect
of great choice on motivation or satisfaction. In short, choice
does not cause anxiety after all.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  spiked