27. 08. 2020.
More choice equals more freedom?
The official dogma of all Western industrial societies is based upon the presumption that in order to maximize the welfare of our citizens, we have to maximize individual freedom. The reason for this is both that freedom is, in and of itself, good, valuable, essential to being human, and because if people have freedom, then each of us can act on our own to do the things that will maximize our welfare, and no one has to decide on our behalf.
The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice. The more choice people have, the more freedom they have, and the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have. This is so deeply embedded in us and our lives that it wouldn’t occur to anyone to question it.
Let’s take for example today’s healthcare system. It’s no longer the case in modern societies that you go to the doctor, and the doctor tells you what to do. Instead, you go to the doctor, and the doctor tells you; “Well, we could do A, or we could do B. A has these benefits and risks, B has these benefits and risks. What do you want to do?”.
Naturally, you ask; “Doc, what should I do?”. The Doc says; “A has these benefits and risks, B has these benefits and risks. What do YOU want to do?”. Then you say; “But if you were me Doc, what would you do?”, and the Doc says; “But I’m not you.”
The result of that is “patient autonomy”, which makes it sound like a good thing, but what it really is, is a shifting of the burden and responsibility from decision making from somebody who knows something, namely, the doctor – to somebody who knows nothing and is almost certainly sick, and thus not in the best shape to be making decisions – the patient.
Something dramatic as our identity has now become a matter of choice. With respect to family and marriage, there was a time when the default assumption that almost everyone had is that you get married as soon as you could, and then start having kids as soon as you could. The only real choice was who, not when or what you did after.
Nowadays, people are preoccupied, asking themselves; “Should I get married or not? When should I get married? Should I have a carrier or kids first?”. All of these are consuming, important questions. What about work? Today, we are blessed with the technology that enables us to work every minute of every day from any place on the planet. Now, what this incredible freedom of choice means, and this is especially true for business owners, is that we have to make a decision again, and again whether we should or shouldn’t be working. We get home from work, kick back, grab a beer, turn on a movie, with our phones/laptop right next to us, and while watching the movie, we’re asking ourselves all the time; “Should I respond to that email? Should I do this or that so I don’t have to do it tomorrow?”. Even if the answer is no, it’s going to make our movie experience very different than it would’ve been.
We can certainly say that today’s life is a matter of choice. While we all know what’s good about that, I’d like to point out what’s bad about it.
Too many choices can have two negative effects on people. One effect, paradoxically, is that it produces paralysis rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all.
There was an interesting study of investments in voluntary retirement plans that resulted in the same conclusion. For every 10 mutual funds the employer offered to employees, the rate of participation went down by 2%. If you offer 50 funds – 10% fewer employees participate than if you only offer 5. Why? Because with 50 funds to choose from, it’s really damn hard to decide which fund to choose, that you just put it off till tomorrow, and then tomorrow, tomorrow, and of course, tomorrow never comes. The decision making was so hard that as a direct consequence they were paralyzed, passing up as much as $5000 a year.
The second effect is that, even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from. With a lot of different options to choose from, if we buy something and it’s not perfect, it’s easy to imagine that we could’ve made a different choice that would’ve been better. That imagined alternative induces us to regret the decision we made and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction we get out of the decision we made, even if it was a good decision.
This is directly related to the escalations of our expectations. There was a time when people went jeans shopping, jeans came in one flavor, people bought them, they fit like crap, they were uncomfortable, but there was nothing else to choose from. Now they can choose from slim fit, regular feet, button fly or zipper fly, stonewashed or acid-washed, then they spend half an hour finding the right size, deciding which ones to buy. After they’re done, they walk out of the store with the best-fitting jeans person could wish for, they know you did better, all of those choices made it possible for them to do better, but – they felt worse. Why? With all of those options available, their expectations about how good a pair of jeans should be went up. They had no expectations when jeans came in one flavor, but when they came in hundreds of flavors, well, one of them had to be perfect. Right? So when people compared what they got with what they expected, what they got was disappointing in comparison to what they expected.
Adding options to our lives can’t help but increase the expectations we have about how good those options will be and that produces less satisfaction with results, even when they’re good results because, with that many choices, there is no excuse for failure.
There’s no question that some choice is better than none, but it doesn’t follow from that, that more choice is better than some choice. We all need some kind of a fishbowl. If we shatter the fishbowl so that everything is possible, we don’t have freedom, we have paralysis. We increase paralysis and we decrease satisfaction, which eventually leads to misery and, I suspect, a disaster.
Co-Founder and Managing Partner
Marko has over 5 years of experience in lead generation and appointment setting across multiple industries, currently acting as a managing partner in a business development agency SkyBox.
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