August 23, 2013

Living in the Land of Excessive Choices (sort of)

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

 When I was in college I practically lived on cereal. It was the 1980s, I had just became a vegetarian, and I was attending a college in the Midwest that had not really mastered the culinary arts for the non-meat-eating student. They tried, but a slab of warm, unseas oned tofu swimming in oil just didn’t cut it.

With limited options, the cereal bar became my best friend. Although some students might bemoan having breakfast for three meals a day I literally ate it up. What I liked best was that I had six different types of cereal from which to choose. As someone who grew up on Cheerios and Wheaties, having three times as many choices—much less having them available all day long—was cereal heaven. I loved mixing and matching flavors and with only 120 combinations (5! for you mathletes out there—I never included Raisin Bran in the mix), I was able to try every conceivable mixture in a year.

Fast forward thirty years and during a recent trip to the supermarket I counted over 100 brands of cereal. That amounts to 9,332,621,544,394,415,268,169,923,885,626,670,049,071,596,826,438,162,146,859,
29,638,952,175,999,932,299,156,089,414,639,761,565,182,862,536,979,208,272,237,582,511,852,109,168, 64,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 combinations! That’s one mega cereal bar. But cereal isn’t the only product that is available in mind-boggling numbers. I also counted 76 types of margarine and butter spreads, over 300 types of yogurt, 28 varieties of Oreo cookies (just Oreos), and 30 types of peanut butter. Maybe I’m missing something,  but I’m not sure why we need so many versions of ground peanuts, sugar, oil, and salt.    

Peanut butterFood is not the only consumer item that can be found in excessive amounts. Just about any product --from sunscreen to televisions to shoes--is available in a multitude of varieties. The same goes for consumer services. There are more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, over 30 pages of lawyers in my yellow phone book, and well over 10,000 restaurants in big cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. Although money doesn’t grow on trees in the United States it’s not a stretch to say that consumer choices are everywhere we turn.

Many of us think this abundance of choices is a sign of progress, freedom, and the good life. With more options to choose from, so the thinking goes, we’ll be happier because we are guaranteed to get just what we want. ParadoxThe belief that unlimited options promote greater well-being was convincingly refuted a few years ago by Barry Schwartz in his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. Schwartz provides evidence that more choices actually make us less satisfied. Instead of boosting our happiness and sense of freedom, a plethora of choices is paralyzing and often results in feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, disappointment and regret.  

Schwartz refers to this process as a paradox because it is totally contrary to what we think is true; it runs counter to our deeply ingrained common-sense beliefs. As a social psychologist, Schwartz does a nice job of detailing how our emotional well-being is intimately connected to the larger social structure. Capitalism, the marketplace, and other socio-economic forces are integral to his argument, making for an insightful sociological analysis.

In addition to the paradoxical dimension of choice, I would argue that there is another dimension to choice that is equally important and no less sociological: The irony of choice. Here, I am referring to the fact that while we do live in a land of excessive consumer choices we also live in a land of limited or forced choices. But with an over abundance of consumer choices, many of us fail to realize the circumstances in which we have little if any options. We have been led to believe that choice is ubiquitous, that America equals choice, and that we always have the freedom to choose just about anything. Let me offer two brief illustrations that show how our choices are not always as abundant as we are led to believe.  

            1. Love. We have a rather romantic notion of love in this country. We often think of love as the joining of two souls who were meant to be together. Love is also thought to be intricately connected with choice. For example, on-line dating sites claim to have “the broadest choices” ( by “screening thousands” ( of potential matches. If the first match doesn’t work out we all know that there are plenty of other fish in the sea.

In reality, finding love is a much more controlled process. Despite what we like to believe,  most of us don’t choose from the entire sea of choices because we tend to exist in small ponds, not great big oceans. It is much more common for us to engage in assortative mating. This is the process whereby we seek out partners who are like us, who share similar characteristics, who provide us with a feeling of social comfort and interactional familiarity.

When you look around at whom people “choose” to love, you will probably see a lot of homogeneity along such dimensions as race, social class, religion, age, physical traits, political ideology, educational level, and cultural tastes. Although there seems to be a trend toward greater heterogeneity in mating patterns—people are indeed broadening their choices—the majority of people “choose” to love someone very much like them. For example, in 2010 nearly 92% of all marriages were still of the same race or ethnicity.

    2. Politics. Choice and democracy are somewhat synonymous. Living in a democracy is all about having freedom of choice and voting is thought to be the epitome of choosing. The problem with this belief is that when we take a closer look at our political choices, particularly at the federal level, we see another extreme case of homogeneity.

Consider the U.S. Senate as a case in point. Here are some demographics of the 100 Senators of the 113th Congress: the “vast majority are Christians,” the average age is 62, eighty are males, ninety-four are white, ninety-nine have attained more than a high-school diploma, ninety-nine are heterosexual, and their median net worth is 2.63 million dollars. When most of us go to the polls to vote for our US Senator it is highly likely that we will “choose” an older, rich, well-educated, heterosexual, Christian, white male. So much for a diversity of choices.   

When it comes to important matters such as who we will marry and who will represent our political interests we do not have as much choice as we may want (or think we have). On the other hand, when it comes to more frivolous and superficial decisions such as what type of cereal to eat for breakfast, we have so many choices that it can be frustratingly overwhelming. Think about all the choices you make in your everyday life. Are they seemingly unlimited or constrained? Is there a paradox to them, as Schwartz suggests, or do you see the irony in these “choices” as I argue?    


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I love the psychology of choice! I've applied the various theories to animal rights social many large orgs have tons and tons of single-issues for people to choose to support or not. I argue that it creates decision fatigue and a collapse of compassion--people get overwhelmed and do nothing at all. I think that packaging them all under the more comprehensive choice of "veganism" and/or "anti-speciesism" is one way of overcoming this.

Your math is badly off. Order doesn't matter--whether you pour Wheaties in and then Cheerios, or Cheerios and then Wheaties, you have the same mixture. With five possibilities, there are 2^5=32 different possible mixtures, including the "null mixture"--no cereal. If you exclude that one, there are 31.

An easy way to see this is that any given mixture either contains cereal 1 or doesn't--two choices. The same for cereal 2 and so on. Multiply all the twos together, and you get 2^n for n different cereals, not n!

A difficult way to see it is to say:

There are 5 "mixtures" with only one type of cereal;
There are 5C2 (5 choose 2) =10 mixtures with two types;
There are 5C3=10 with three types
There are 5C4=5 with four types
There is one with all five types.

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