That is also the point of a thoughtful and straightforward new book by psychology professor and frequent talk show guest Barry Schwartz entitled “The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More.“ His premise is that even in relatively simple matters of daily life, such as buying a pair of jeans, ordering a cup of coffee or choosing a long-distance carrier, the process of making decisions has become increasingly complex due to the overwhelming abundance of choices we can encounter. And when that is the case, making more critical choices can be the catalyst for everything from ineffective resolutions to personal meltdowns.
From the onset of the book, Schwartz makes a compelling case that we as a consumer and capitalism-driven society have grown more reliant on the notion that more choices means more opportunities for satisfaction. However, “choice overload“ can be a dangerous double-edged sword that can lead to unrealistic expectations, decision-making paralysis and anxiety, all of which contributes to stress.
In the first chapter, “Let‘s Go Shopping,“ Schwartz describes the seemingly limitless options that surround us at the average grocery store:
“Scanning the shelves of my local supermarket recently, I found 85 different varieties and brands of crackers. As I read the packages, I discovered that some brands had sodium, others didn‘t. Some were fat-free, others weren‘t. They came in big boxes and small ones. They came in normal size and bite size. There were mundane saltines and exotic and expensive imports.
My neighborhood supermarket is not a particularly large store, and yet next to the crackers were 285 varieties of cookies. Among chocolate chip cookies, there were 21 options. Among Goldfish (I don‘t know whether to count them as cookies or crackers), there were 20 different varieties to choose from.
Across the aisle were juices -- 13 “sports drinks,“ 65 “box drinks“ for kids, 85 other flavors and brands of juices, and 75 iced teas and adult drinks. I could get these tea drinks sweetened (sugar or artificial sweetener), lemoned, and flavored.
Next, in the snack aisle, there were 95 options in all -- chips (taco and potato, ridged and flat, flavored and unflavored, salted and unsalted, high fat, low fat, no fat), pretzels, and the like, including a dozen varieties of Pringles. Nearby was seltzer, no doubt to wash down the snacks. Bottled water was displayed in at least 15 flavors.
In the pharmaceutical aisles, I found 61 varieties of suntan oil and sunblock, and 80 different pain relievers -- aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen; 350 milligrams or 500 milligrams; caplets, capsules, and tablets; coated or uncoated. There were 40 options for toothpaste, 150 lipsticks, 75 eyeliners, and 90 colors of nail polish from one brand alone. There were 116 kinds of skin cream, and 360 types of shampoo, conditioner, gel, and mousse. Next to them were 90 different cold remedies and decongestants. Finally, there was dental floss: waxed and unwaxed, flavored and unflavored, offered in a variety of thicknesses.
Returning to the food shelves, I could choose from among 230 soup offerings, including 29 different chicken soups. There were 16 varieties of instant mashed potatoes, 75 different instant gravies, 120 different pasta sauces. Among the 175 different salad dressings were 16 “Italian“ dressings, and if none of them suited me, I could choose from 15 extra-virgin olive oils and 42 vinegars and make my own. There were 275 varieties of cereal, including 24 oatmeal options and 7 “Cheerios“ options. Across the aisle were 64 different kinds of barbecue sauce and 175 types of tea bags.
Heading down the homestretch, I encountered 22 types of frozen waffles. And just before the checkout (paper or plastic; cash or credit or debit), there was a salad bar that offered 55 different items.
This brief tour of one modest store barely suggests the bounty that lies before today‘s middle-class consumer. I left out the fresh fruits and vegetables (organic, semi-organic, and regular old fertilized and pesticized), the fresh meats, fish, and poultry (free-range organic chicken or penned-up chicken, skin on or off, whole or in pieces, seasoned or unseasoned, stuffed or empty), the frozen foods, the paper goods, the cleaning products, and on and on and on.
A typical supermarket carries more than 30,000 items. That‘s a lot to choose from. And more than 20,000 new products hit the shelves every year, almost all of them doomed to failure.“
In a nation where choice is viewed as critical to the personal and collective freedoms we treasure, we have also come to see that they have created certain complex paradoxes and compromises. Schwartz draws from his background in social sciences and human behavior to demonstrate how too many options can be detrimental to our psychological and emotional well-being and eventually create problems rather than solve them.
He uses a balanced combination of research analysis, straight talk, effective examples and a self-help-styled guide of 11 practical steps geared to limiting choices to a manageable number and defining priorities that will make the most sense and have the most potential for creating satisfaction. Some may argue that in using this combination of elements, Schwartz can be prone to stating - or even re-stating - the obvious, however, for those prone to be overwhelmed by too many choices (especially when it comes to “simple“ matters), his techniques and approaches seem grounded, sensible and accessible enough to easily incorporate into daily life. For the most part, that doesn‘t seem to be a decision on which we would need to spend too much time ruminating.