Spoiled by Choice



I can make a high-stakes choice easily enough. Which country to live in. Which career track to pursue. Dramatic differences in variables make it simple calculation.

But I’m terrified of ice cream parlours.

I go into them in the first place because I’d like an ice cream. Then I see the array, am excited for about two seconds, and my desire for an ice cream is superseded by the desire to get away from the demand for a decision.

I watched a couple of TED videos by psycho-economist Sheena Iyengar this week, in which she explained why this mental paralysis was happening. She called it the ‘choice overload problem.’ The topic of ice creams didn’t come up, but I recognised the principles.

A glut of options isn’t beneficial for anybody. Not the seller. Not the consumer. When there are too many options, the choosing process becomes overwhelming, and it stalls. And because I can’t practically do necessary analyses to make the smartest choice from an overwhelming array, I’m dissatisfied with my choice. Whatever it is. What if I’d chosen something else? I think. Would my experience have been better?

And that’s if I even make a choice at all—Sheena’s research verifies that the more options there are, the less one participates in the first place.

I haven’t chosen an investment strategy either, because there are too many. So my savings accumulate at the speed of a sloth on Sunday morning, in a bog-standard bank account. That’s no retirement plan, right there.

When there is too much choice, a consumer chooses not to choose; not to consume. Even to their disadvantage.

The ice cream parlour perhaps expects its array to signify liberation, as it offers me deliverance from the frugal flavour constraints of the dairy down the road. But instead, it buries me under its meaningless minutiae until I suffocate.

I understand that ice cream, to an ice cream parlour, is a issue of speciality. It’s their raison d’être, so one would expect them to be more opulent and varied than the corner dairy. Otherwise they’d have no reason to be there. (The technical term for that is USP, for Unique Selling Point, but I’ll just stop a digression right here…) So how can they address the choice overload problem? How can they fulfil their niche obligation without sending customers off screaming with brain paralysis?

Perhaps some small group of people will just have to avoid ice cream parlours altogether, for their own mental stability. As for me, I think I’d be adequately comfortable if they broke the array down into labelled categories. Group the fruit ones together. Group the blends together. Group the beverage flavours together (then I’ll know to look here first, in case there’s a coffee one). Group the chunky ones together. There’ll probably still be an array of miscellany when all others have been grouped and categorised, but the number will be a lot smaller; a lot more manageable.

And, dear ice cream parlours, don’t alphabetise your flavours. It’s a great system for libraries, but it’s ridiculous for ice cream when it puts Apricot and Peach at opposite ends of the room, and I wouldn’t taste much difference between them anyway. Go with the categories.

But, in my experience, they don’t. They just go with the option deluge, and hope for the best.

I have greater things to expend time and mental efforts on, than satisfactorily determining a flavour of ice cream. It doesn’t matter! Just give me an ice cream with no gumdrops in it!

But no, I must choose from 30 flavours. Or 29, once Goody-Goody-Gumdrops is eliminated. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t care. I don’t care!

But then, if it’s truly the case that it doesn’t matter what flavour ice cream I choose, and that I don’t care, it should follow that I’d be just as happy to close my eyes, stab at the display cabinet, and select whichever flavour I end up pointing at. If there is no significance to the choice, there is no gain or loss by the selection, right? But I can’t do that. Why? I feel like I have to make an educated and deliberate choice. I can’t surrender the choice, because then it’s a probability game, and the odds of randomly picking the best flavour of 30 are low.

Sometimes I’ll ask a product supplier, ‘What do you recommend?’ (I keep in mind their commission-related motivation—if they don’t automatically suggest the most expensive, I’m more likely to listen). I don’t actually care about their opinion, personally. It’s just that I care even less about the product minutiae. So I’m making the issue of choice their problem, not mine. And a choice decision reached by any sentient body has to have a more successful outcome than random selection.

Sometimes the best choice I can make, is to consciously not make one. This is sometimes by walking out of an ice cream parlour. Or it’s by allowing someone else to choose the DVD we’re watching.

Less choice, fewer headaches. Because sometimes choice isn’t liberty at all.


1 Comment

  • Deborah Makarios
    25 Jun 2016

    I have the opposite problem. Minor decisions I can make with not much fuss, but major decisions leave me endlessly second-guessing myself.
    But (cough) living in close contact with someone who also struggles with All The Variables, I can recommend the use of the simple phrase, “Your decisions are not crucial.” It can help to take the pressure off.
    I totally agree about the alphabetization of icecream, though. Madness!

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