Too Many Choices

– Sigh.
– What’s wrong, Gus?
– Another yes/no question, Pal.
– Too many, eh?
– Ha ha. All I can say to this is that back in the early 1980s in the People’s Republic of China one thing we didn’t have “too much” of was choice. Either the things we needed and wanted were available or they weren’t. The market — I mean where the food was — depended totally on the seasons and if my favorite green chilies were out of season, too bad Gus. It was also an El Niño year so we had only four sunny days all winter. I couldn’t choose to go out or not in the rain. I had to go out. I learned to use an umbrella…
– What does this have to do with the topic?
– Well, when I got back to the US, there were so many choices for everything that I was overwhelmed. But it really isn’t choice. Take tea. There are five or six flavors of black tea and ten brands. That’s not really choice. Same with breakfast cereal — though there are more flavors and more promises than with black tea — many of the choices are duplicates; the “choice” becomes price.
– Choice is good, right?
– Sure, but I think it can be excessive. It was liberating in China to know that I did not have to make decisions between several nearly identical items. I could only buy what was for sale when it was for sale. It really freed up a lot of brain cells to think about other things. I knew this. I needed coffee. I needed milk — powdered was fine. I needed cheese, so we made trips to Hong Kong, returning with bricks of Danish Havarti, coffee (when local coffee wasn’t available) and tinned butter from Australia. Mayonnaise turned out to be important. Tuna. That little cache of basic and rather boring “home” food was enough. Every other thing was there in China, new and different and something to experiment with. If there was fresh milk it was in the form of yogurt. We’d ride our bikes miles to get it and then I’d make more yogurt using one of the little bottles as a culture. Bread, every afternoon at 4 from the college bakery. We rushed over and queued up. I didn’t need a gigantic variety.
– Interesting. So you had more freedom in Communist China?
– Freedom, in one sense, is a day to day thing not a political thing. I had freedom FROM the need to make gratuitous choices. We in the wealthy world — and I’m going to say the US in particular because I never saw such an excess of choices in any European supermarket — have more superficial choices than we need and possibly not enough REAL choices, like in who leads our country…
– I thought the ability to discriminate between things was an important element of human evolution.
– Well, yeah. We do spend a lot of our lives eliminating choices, finding what we like and what we don’t like. I think that’s how “old” people appear to be set in their ways. They’ve made the choices and found what they want, like and what works for them. When we’re young, we revel in the “opportunity” of choices and we anguish over the possibility of making the wrong choices.
– You anguish over that and you’re not young.
– You got me there, Pal. Still, my recent “choice” was vastly simplified by external circumstances like my age and my retirement income. That was liberating because it eliminated “possibilities” showing them to be  IM-possibilities. The thing is, I think we can be distracted from the important choices by the excess of unimportant choices. On what would we exercise our ability to discriminate if we did not have 10 different flavors and 3 different brands of shredded wheat to choose from? I really think about that. The guys that put the first man in space only had ONE kind of shredded wheat on the shelves in their grocery. Anyway, here’s a happy little ditty from Devo that “speaks” to just this question, “Freedom of Choice.”

13 thoughts on “Too Many Choices

  1. great piece on choices – and I like the way you set up the sentences – it allows me to read it nice and fats (but good writing helps that too) but seriously – sometimes I just have to “come back” to read posts that are long – and sometimes never make it back – so I do appreciate the set up.
    cool point with this:
    “It really freed up a lot of brain cells to think about other things…”

    and just also had to say that “mots” cereal is not a nutrient giving food – and so I say the choice there should be limited by what gives life to your cells – and most store choices offer only rich company processed food choices that are really trapping people into poor nutrition – but I digress – all this to say cool post!! 🙂

  2. Martha, I had the same reaction as you did when I came back from 2 years in Ethiopia. I was overwhelmed by the supermarkets and department stores. I simply could not make a choice! Our excess is ridiculous, although to be truthful it is nice to find one’s favorite brand of bran cereal (sticks, not flakes.) The ironic contrast is Costco, where there are fewer choices for each item but where the excess is in quantity, not choice of brands. Buying your toilet paper 50 rolls at a time does save on gas, however—one excess traded for another! Good posting…Judy

  3. Excellent points, all of them. A lot of choices here are not meaningful. They are distractions from real issues. I think that’s the way most people want it. It gives them an illusion of choice. They don’t need to concern themselves with larger problems while they decide on what kind of empty calories to buy for breakfast. Many people don’t even know there ARE larger issues.

  4. Ditto on all of the above. Yet another great post Martha.

    Due to the circumstances of the past ten months, my shopping has come around nearly full circle to where it used to be years ago. My last job was third shift and I was perpetually exhausted. I shopped, almost without exception, at Sam’s Club. I bought close to the same thing, week after week. Now that I have the energy to make my own food again, I only venture into Sam’s Club for the items that I know I will save considerably on, namely cream, butter, nuts and the Starbucks beans that I so love. Certain other household items and gas also, but we’re talking food now.

    Returning to the cereal aisle for the first time in who knows how many years (I had a coupon for multi-grain Cheerios which was also on sale), I discovered that, unbeknownst to me, Cheerios was now available in a bewildering number of choices – most of which were NOT healthier. I finally found what I wanted – plain Cheerios multi-grain – and moved on.

    My last job involved working at a local MNC best known for breakfast “foods.” I saw, much to my disgust, an endless array of sugar and chemically “enhanced” so-called foods being tested and then brought to market. Does the world really need yet another pseudo food? I came to believe that the sole purpose for much of this company’s existence is to create more fake food that is NOT needed. Instead of trying to come up with more ways to get more nutrition into the places where it is needed the most – namely the poor who tend to eat the worst food – they waste millions on trying out still more varieties of sugar, chemicals and artificial everything. It’s disgusting, wasteful and a mockery of the years of education that their “food scientists” took in order to qualify for the job. I find it hard to believe that this was really what they had in mind while seeking their graduate degrees.

    In the end, how many decisions do you need to make? Recent studies indicate that the more decisions that we have to make, the more likely we are to make poor ones. We essentially use up our daily allowance of choices when we are constantly bombarded with trivial decisions. Maybe that’s why so many of us give in to grabbing a fast food meal instead of waiting a few extra minutes to make something healthier at home. It’s just easier to not have to decide what to make after all of the other decisions that we have already made that day.

  5. That’s very interesting — I thought that being bombarded by trivial decisions tired us out; I never knew anyone studied that.

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