Coping With Consequences Of Overabundant Choice

You pay your money, you make your choice.” This old American expression has always implied that making your choice is a reward for the painful task of paying your money. Today, amid widespread prosperity and an unprecedented abundance of consumer choice, some people instead argue that choosing has become the hard part. It’s certainly true that the exercise of choice now occupies a larger space in Americans’ lives, whether they’re shopping for groceries in supersized supermarkets or clicking through the numerous channels on their cable TVs. And the way they cope with the proliferation of choice matters as never before in the way they relate to the consumer economy and even to each other.

Aren’t we happier as consumers when we have more options rather than fewer? So one might suppose. But in a book that attracted lots of attention last year—The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less—Swarthmore psychology professor Barry Schwartz argued that an excess of choice is making Americans less happy. While it’s better to have some choice than no choice, he wrote, this doesn’t mean that more choice is better than less choice. Beyond a certain point, adding more options can paralyze a person’s ability to select any one of them. (Think of choosing among the nearly two dozen varieties of chocolate-chip cookies one finds on the shelves of a modern supermarket.) Even when we manage to make a selection, the surfeit of options makes it harder for us to be content with it. After all, we’ve forgone so many alternatives that might have turned out to be better. Worse still, our brains amalgamate the best features of all the available options, thus making any one of them seem comparatively less satisfying. Since consumers now buy so much—and forgo so many options before settling on their choice—Schwartz contends that they’re prone to the most massive case of “buyer’s remorse” in human history.

Schwartz’s tales of consumer discombobulation ring true for so many readers because they’ve had similar experiences themselves. But is there really a linkage (as he suggests) between overabundant choice and the increase in clinical depression and suicide in recent decades? For all the talk of paralysis in the face of too many options, people somehow manage to buy tons of everything. There’s no denying that many people are stressed by some of the choices they must make in the modern marketplace, and that some people are seriously unhinged by it. But the notion that a surfeit of consumer choice is driving us around the bend en masse is rebutted by Americans’ self-assessments of their mental and emotional condition. Gallup’s polling consistently finds the great majority of adults describing themselves as happy. In its analysis of a poll on this topic released at the beginning of last year, Gallup remarked that Americans’ subjective sense of well-being “is as high today as at any time in the history of these Gallup trends.” Likewise, in a survey released last month, nearly nine in 10 Gallup respondents described their “mental health or emotional well-being” in positive terms (see the pie chart on the facing page).

Tellingly, the ratings were highest for those at the highest income levels—i.e., the people in a position to exercise the most choice as consumers. Sixty-three percent of respondents with income of $75,000-plus said their mental health/emotional well-being is excellent, vs. 62 percent of the $50,000-74,999s, 44 percent of the $30,000-49,999s, 42 percent of the $20,000-29,999s and 31 percent of those who make $20,000 or less. Yes, the high end of consumer civilization has its discontents, but severe anxiety remains more an affliction of poverty than of choice-granting affluence.

Whatever its downside, the emergence of consumer choice is a problem with which people can cope. The question is: How do they cope? In seeking an answer, it’s useful to think of your own experience as a consumer. Unless you’re a chronic “maximizer,” obsessively seeking the very best option in every transaction you make, you probably cope with the surfeit of choice by caring about some categories and not caring about others. It’s like college: You major in one field and then ignore vast swathes of the course catalogue. Anti-brand activists complain that consumers are subjected to countless sales pitches and brand images per day, but such laments underestimate people’s capacity for ignoring messages that don’t interest them. One reflection of this: In an InsightExpress poll released last year, 50 percent of respondents couldn’t (without prompting) name even one new product that had been launched in 2003.

The tendency to major in the categories we care about (while ignoring others) also shows up in the twin phenomena of “trading up” and “trading down.” In product/service categories they care about, people are willing to spend above-average amounts of money, time and energy. They’re able to do so in part because they spend below-average proportions of their resources on satisfying their needs in categories that don’t particularly interest them. It’s no longer surprising to see a shopping cart in which the deluxe brand of one product coexists with the bargain brands of other goods. Note that buying the store brand of dish soap doesn’t just conserve one’s cash: It conserves one’s psychic energy by simplifying the choice. A recent survey conducted for The Boston Consulting Group identifies the sectors in which consumers are most likely to trade up: personal computers, meat, home/apartment, furniture, meals in sit-down restaurants, cars, bedding, kitchen appliances, home-entertainment products and travel/vacations. The chief trading-down categories: canned foods, dry goods, snack foods, household cleaners, paper products, fast-service restaurants, accessories, soft drinks, bottled water and over-the-counter remedies. The study included this revealing comment on its data: “Choices seem to be motivated not by style or status but by what gives people a sense of well-being and respite from day-to-day pressures.”

Almost within living memory, fretting about too much choice would have seemed absurd. The majority of people had to spend their money on the bare necessities of life. Everyone cared about the same things (food, shelter and other such essentials) because they didn’t have the money to care about anything else. These circumstances were an ideal breeding ground for envy, a phenomenon so old that it made the cut as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The person who didn’t have enough to eat was naturally disposed to envy the person who had food in surplus. Now that different people can afford to have different priorities, envy seems destined to play a diminishing role in people’s lives as consumers (even as it lives on in other segments of life). Simply put, if you care about different sorts of things than your neighbor does, you’re less likely to envy him for the stuff he owns—and vice versa. His top-of-the-line fly-fishing gear means nothing to you; your well-chosen wine cellar means nothing to him.

It’s true, as various commentators have noted, that ordinary people know more than ever about the lifestyles of rich people—a fact that might be expected to yield an increase in envy. But ordinary folks also have the opportunity to develop and express their own taste, which means they’re now less prone to reflexively coveting the lavish possessions of their economic betters. For instance, you may well feel there’s nothing in Donald Trump’s home that you’d take if it were offered to you for free, let alone if you had to toil to earn it. The rise of choice has led you and Mr. Trump in different directions, leaving you with no inclination to envy him his specific inventory of luxuries. One sees an indirect reflection of this tendency in surveys published last year. In one, conducted for Traditional Home magazine among upper-income homeowners, nearly all respondents said they’re willing to splurge to get “good craftsmanship” in the goods they buy. By contrast, just 37 percent said they would spend top dollar to get a “prestigious brand.” And they’ve got a point, since the prestige might carry no significance for many of their peers—i.e., people whose own consumer enthusiasms lie in different areas. There’s not much fun in flaunting your wealth if the flauntees won’t be impressed. More broadly, polls by The Pew Center for the People and the Press reveal a rise in the number of Americans who feel they earn enough money “to lead the kind of life you want.” Last year, 51 percent said they do, up from 39 percent as recently as 1999. That’s just the sort of trend one would expect to see when economic envy weakens as a consumer force in a “to each his own” marketplace.

Does the growing exercise of choice—and the consequent decline of a lockstep mass market—mean society is becoming more atomistic? In some ways it seems to have that effect. Pop culture is an obvious example. Celebrities are so numerous and ubiquitous that you can’t pass a newsstand without being confronted by dozens of celeb faces. And consumers cope with this overabundance (as they do at the supermarket) by ignoring much of it. Lots of people (including me, at times) wring their hands about the collective mania for celebs. However, the sheer number of those characters means hardly any of them wield the cultural power that the likes of Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles exerted when the celebrity demographic wasn’t so overpopulated. Popular culture used to unite Americans; now it lets them sort themselves into numerous self-contained niches—just as they do when deciding which consumer products merit their money and attention. One indication of this is the way the term “counterculture” has largely fallen into disuse to describe anything that’s going on now. (It’s used more often with reference to the 1960s.) Nowadays, we instead hear of “alternative” music, film, theater and the like. The notion of overthrowing the dominant culture has lost currency because in many respects there no longer is a dominant culture. And that makes perfect sense in an era when people talk about “podcasting” (i.e., downloading precisely what suits their personal taste) as a substitute for one-size-fits-all broadcasting.

But this doesn’t mean Americans have less in common with each other than they did in some communitarian golden age. Rather, it means their commonality is likely to reside in experiences that aren’t part of the consumer marketplace—things like religious belief, child-rearing, aging, etc. (On a given Sunday, the number of Americans who watch Desperate Housewives in the evening is dwarfed by the number who attended church that morning.) We tend not to notice these as much as the latest pop-culture trends because they’ve been around forever. But that doesn’t make them any the less important as the material of common experience. For instance, the baby boomers will soon be dealing with the realities of old age, and this is likely to create a stronger bond among them than their disparate aquarian-age escapades ever did. Likewise, for all the changes in family structure, a majority of people still marry, and a majority of married people still have kids (albeit fewer than Americans did in earlier generations). These basic elements of life give people plenty in common—not as consumers, necessarily, but as human beings.

While people may have less in common as consumers than in the heyday of the mass market, there’s little empirical evidence to suggest they feel cast adrift as a result. In this regard, the Harris Poll’s annual Alienation Index polling provides a useful reality check. The index, “designed to measure feelings of powerlessness and isolation,” is at one of its lowest levels in the past 30 years. The bar chart above on this page shows some historical detail on one important component of the index. Because the fracturing of the mass market is a function of individual choice writ large, it doesn’t leave people feeling isolated. Indeed, coping with the mixed blessing of abundant consumer choice is now one of the things Americans have in common, whether they always like it or not.