Why Too Much Choice Is Bad For Us

4 Dec

Advertisers, big business and politicians are always telling us that the more choices we have the better. This attitude seems to have gradually taken over into all aspects of our lives, from education to dating, to hair care, careers, cars and coffees. Yet, this isn’t how the human brain works. Yes, we’re programmed to try to make the best decision based on the choices that are available, but only when there are a small number of them and they are clearly different. These are the types of decisions we thrive on.  Should we eat this fruit or that one?  Should we hunt a small antelope that’s easy to catch but will only feed us for a day, or should we try for a bigger one that will be more difficult to kill, but will feed us for longer?

The problems start when the number of choices mount and the difference between them shrink towards insignificance. When this happens we’re left flummoxed. Which of the several million possible combinations of options for a single make of car is exactly right for us? Exactly which new flat screen TV will suit our lifestyle? What combination of sprinkles, frothy milk and bean-type should we have in our morning coffee to set us up for the day? With this amount of choice, we can never be certain we’ve made the one that really is best for us, and we’re left with nagging suspicions that we could have made a better one if only we’d spent longer trying to decide.

This leads to a type of choice paralysis, where we become transfixed as we try to work out exactly what the difference is between all the choices laid out before us, and so which will be best for us. You can see people stuck in this state almost everyday.  They’re the ones standing there with a glazed look on their face staring at the wall of televisions or the coffee-house menu board as they desperately try to work out which would be best for them. I’ve been there and done that, and I refuse to play this game anymore, it just makes me unhappy with whatever choice I eventually make.

In the past, I’ve found myself faced with a myriad of different shampoos, all of which seem to promise something slightly different, trying to decide wondering which was best for me, despite the niggling suspicion that which ever I choose will make little real difference to my rapidly receding hairline. Now, I just pick the first one that looks like it will be good enough and go with that. If it works, I’ll buy it again. If it doesn’t, I won’t. The same goes for televisions, computers and so on. When I’m out shopping for them, I’m make a list of the basic specifications I need, and know anything beyond that is purely an aesthetic or financial decision.  No longer do I stand there trying to work out whether some feature I’ll never use it worth the extra £20 on a sale price I can’t really afford anyway. Once I’ve made my purchase, I’ll stop looking there and then. I won’t keep on searching to see if I could have got something better for a lower price elsewhere, as I might have done in the past. Yes, this goes against the prevailing opinion as to what makes our lives better, but you know, I’m happier for it.

I wonder whether the fact that we’re now drowning in choices in almost everything we do in our everyday lives lies at the heart of the apparently ever-increasing popularity of post-apocalyptic fiction. When civilisation collapses, we’ll no longer have the luxury of choosing between cappuccinos, frappuccinos, espressos, skinny lattes and mochas. Coffee will quickly get back to just being coffee, that’s if we can find it (maybe with a bit of powered milk if we’re really lucky).  When the dead start to rise and walk the earth, life will be simpler.  There will be just two choices: Survive or die trying. Yes, it might be bleak, but there’s a certain simplicity to it that I think a lot of us find attractive, at least in comparison to the onslaught of pretty much meaningless choices we currently face each and every day.

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

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