Sunday, May 1, 2016

The burden of choice

If there is one thing that distinguishes modern times with our past generations, it is the abundance of choice we have in almost everything we do. From the time Adam Smith made a philosophically imperative case of "capitalism" in 1776 ( coincidental isn't it? with birth of America) with his Book "Wealth of nations"; industrialism, division of labor and specialization have literally usurped the laid-back attitude of common man exchanging goods. Earlier,He could only barter what he physically had with others who could give him what he essentially wanted. Since needs were less, choices were almost non-existent. And of course, they did not have to deal with a class of people called Marketeers or advertisers, whose only task to is to weave new needs where there is none and push people on to a "hedonic treadmill". For our ancestors, as long as their basic needs were satisfied, there was no grave psychological discontent. I don't think history even speaks of " clinical depression" ( Psychological and economic) before the eighteenth century. Fast- forward to current times. Walk into a department store, or think about buying almost anything you can possibly conceive (sadly even Mothers and fathers from sperm banks) - there is an explosion of choices. Rows and aisles of products varying from each other in most subtle ways, millions of needs - tangible and intangible - fueled through media and its void filled by thousand different offerings, advantages and disadvantages being compared in deceptively significant ways creating tremendous psychological strain - all these are common experience for all of us today. Even important decisions like Education, Marriage, jobs, hospitals bury us with choices. It seems we will not be allowed to lead a simple life, even if we wished to, Unless one deliberately breaks the pattern that has so insidiously entered our lives.
Here is the reality in today's world: if there is anyone who is not willing to spend time going through pros and cons of everything before investing in anything (big or small) He or She may be considered a fool, illiterate or downright impractical fellow - in that order respectively. In a gathering of friends, we have to assert that we have spent X number of hours researching a buy. If not, something is seriously wrong with us. Alternately, if we don't have the capacity or inclination to weigh options, then we must, at the very least seek "expert" advice. If either of the above two courses are not followed, chances are high we may lose our respect among peers and may be branded as dumb witted. In other words, if you are one those people like me, who finds satisfaction in whatever you buy, almost instinctively, you may be frowned upon. Not that you are careless buyer. No!!. You know what you need and buy the first product that meets those requirements adequately. Period. No looking at myriad options which plays on psychological subtleties, and sense of disappointment and disenchantment it brings even after the purchase.
You see the point, I am trying to make in this short essay is this: Do we even realize that we spent an inordinate amount of time weighing choices? Do we also realize that even after investing, we are not entirely happy most of time because we are more focused on what we could have bought against what we have in hand? Do we not genuinely feel happy in some cases where we do not have too many choices, but have to decide on something that is available and satisfactory (if you are middle of nowhere, even the most unclean, unhygienic food will taste divine)? Think about it..
It all boils down to this. We measure progress with number of increased options available. We have somehow come to believe that if a society does not have many options, it is backward, and needs to be restructured. Democracy is confused with choice, as against individual freedom to make balanced choices based on needs, means and culture. We want to breed a society of "Maximizers" against "satisficers" . These terms and its distinction was beautifully bought out by social theorist Professor Barry Schwartz in his 2004 book "The paradox of choice". The common notion that increased choice leads to increased happiness is a theory that is not supported by any study in any field. In fact, the converse seems to be true. Let me conclude this essay by bringing to your attention a most wonderful, must read book on this notion and perception of choice. The book is "The art of Choosing" by Sheena Iyengar published in 2010. Sheena is a professor at Columbia university and recognized authority around the world on choosing as a cultural and social paradigm. Sheena herself made some great choices in her life. She was completely blind before she was sixteen, yet made bold decisions to graduate with honors from Penn and Wharton. She walks with a cane,reads and writes in Braille and speaks with eloquence and confidence. She teaches advanced students in top universities on the mechanics of choice. Her book "The art of choosing" was an eye opener to me , when I read it, and I am sure it will be to most of us who are sensitive to this important question in our daily lives. In her introduction, Sheena talks of an experiment she conducted in one of the biggest stores in the United States with Jams. In one booth, thirty varieties of Jam were displayed with varying price ranges, and In another booth six varieties with higher prices. The experiment yielded an astonishing result. People came to the booth with more choices of jams , but hesitated buying. Whereas when they walked to the smaller booth, they actually bought. The irony was that all the brands displayed in the second booth (6 varieties ) were available in the first.
Maybe too much of choice is not a good thing after all..
God bless...
Yours in mortality,
Bala

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