To Be Is to Choose
Can We Really Have Too Many Choices?
APRIL 01, 2001 by SHELDON RICHMAN
Left and right critics of free markets sometime level the criticism that capitalism encourages crass consumerism and materialism. Stores and malls proliferate, offering round the clock a dizzying array of products that people did perfectly well without not so long ago. A well-known conservative journalist/political aspirant once said to me, “You’ve walked through the mall. Do we really need all those things?”
Some people—even some consumers—are bothered by the number of choices within categories of products. The New York Times recently carried a report of studies by a professor of psychology and a professor of business which purport to show that consumers can get overwhelmed with too many choices. Mark R. Lepper, chairman of Stanford University’s psychology department, told the Times, “One can go too far in the process of offering choices and when we are confronted with an array of choices that is larger than we can manage, it has negative effects.”
According to the Times:
Dr. Edward L. Deci, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester who studies human motivation [and who did not conduct the studies], said that “having more than an optimal number of options is not necessarily a motivating factor, as these studies have nicely shown.”
“It’s very important for people to have choices, to be able to decide what’s meaningful for them,” he added. “But you can get overloaded with it, just as you can anything else.”
Well, okay. There’s a grain of truth here. We’ve all been bewildered at one time or another by a large variety of products. But we manage, don’t we? We ask friends about their experiences or we read product reviews or find any number of ways to winnow the selection down to a manageable number.
Furthermore, what is an optimal number of choices for one person is suboptimal for someone else. Should the least competent at dealing with choices set the standard for everyone else?
The availability of many choices need not instill materialism or befuddlement. Each individual is still in charge of his conduct and his life. Choice is the consequence of freedom, so at the moment of exasperation, consider the alternative. The range of choice under socialism satisfied no one, including the rulers who managed to procure Western goods.
Complaining about the sumptuous buffet that capitalism sets before us is like railing against 24-hour all-you-can-eat restaurants. The existence of those restaurants does not imply that you should eat all you can 24 hours a day. It simply says, “We’re here when you want us.” The same with the rest of the marketplace.
You don’t have to consume everything you see. It’s just there when you want it. Exercise self-responsibility and prosper.
* * *
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