The variety of choice today, especially in entertainment and merchandise, is almost beyond comprehension. Not that long ago, there were only three major national TV networks. Today, there are hundreds, no, thousands of channels. How much TV can a person watch?
Going shopping? There’s exponentially more to choose from at your local supermarket in almost every category. As recently as the 1990s, an individual grocery store carried about 7,000 items. Today that number is 40,000 to 50,000, according to Michael Ruhlman, author of Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America. There are 35 brands of mustard alone according to Wikipedia, and that doesn’t include sub-brands. (Grey Poupon offers Dijon, Whole Grain, and Spicy Brown.) How much mustard does a person need?
It’s not just groceries, of course. Need a power saw at Lowes? How about paint for your wall? So many options you could reasonably throw up your hands in despair.
Yet, I’m willing to bet if someone asked you whether you’d prefer more choices in life or fewer, you’d pick “more” since, why not? More is better, right?
(“More anything?” the flight attendant asked Jerry Seinfeld when he found himself seated in first class. “More everything!” he replied.)
Except, it turns out, more isn’t better. Here’s what you lose when you have unlimited choices: First, peace of mind. It’s unnerving to have to go through an enormous menu of options, since it takes effort to sift through the pros and cons of each, and what if you choose wrong?
In an oft-cited study done at Wharton, customers in a gourmet grocery story were watched as they passed a display of either 6 or 24 types of jam. While more customers were drawn to the larger display, only 3 percent of shoppers who passed by bought jam at that table. Meanwhile, 30 percent made a purchase from the limited-choice table. As the authors wrote, “It is not that people are saddened by the decisions they make in the face of abundant options, but rather that they are rendered unsure, burdened by the responsibility of choosing optimally.”
Another way to put it is they were beset by FOMO, fear of missing out. FOMO isn’t a factor when there are only six available options.
It’s actually unnerving to have to go through an enormous menu of options. What if you choose wrong?
But beyond our confusion when we’re faced with a cornucopia of choice, we have also lost a sense of community. Those three national TV networks back in the day aired shows that nearly everyone watched and that you could talk about with the confidence that they were well known by all. Today, you can’t assume that any of your friends or coworkers are on the same page. You want to talk about The Crown? Sorry, your friend is into fishing shows.
Or, let’s say you’re both into fishing shows. Are you more of a Deadliest Catch type or a Wicked Tuna fan? Not to leave out Battlefish, Monster Fish, Fish Mavericks, or Fishing Adventurer.
It’s nice, of course, that there are so many niche choices — it means that there’s something for almost everyone, if not on television then certainly on the internet. And frankly, many of those old shows haven’t aged well, and our new choices are much better and more interesting. But the down side is that these insular interest groups often end up cutting off their fans from the rest of society. And so, at a time when so many forces seem to be driving us apart, our harmless hobbies and entertainment choices just feed those feelings of division when our society is crying out for more unity.
Look, obviously we’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle. Even as we feel overwhelmed by choice, we certainly wouldn’t want someone else to decide which choices we should give up for the sake of illusory peace of mind. But I do sometimes long for the days when quotidian decision-making wasn’t always a frantic search among endless possibilities for that one, shining, perfect choice that we will never find.
This article is featured in the September/October 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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