Overchoice, No Choice and Taking Back Control

Medical Reviewer

At some point in my near history I stopped going to big supermarkets. These days I generally visit smaller places where I can dip in and out. It's quicker, I feel less 'managed' and crucially I don't have the agony of choice that comes with supermarket shopping. On that note, I've just been looking at a consumer report. This tells me the typical supermarket stocks 27 varieties of just one brand of toothpaste and 25 formulations of a well-known dandruff shampoo and over 70 varieties of a soup brand. You see where I'm going with this?

It's the 'is more automatically better' issue. Do we confuse freedom of choice with freedom? Is it becoming so baffling that we worry we've made the wrong choice. Couple this with so-called money saving offers, two for one deals, nutritional information on labels, and the whole thing gets very complex.

In 1970 the Sociologist Alvin Toffler wrote about 'future shock'. He theorized that faced with a lot of choice over a short span of time could lead to 'overchoice', resulting in the need to process lots of information. This, he suggested, slowed reactions, made decisions harder and could even lead to psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression. At its most simple a choice means deciding between two options. It requires examining the merits of one thing over another and it's something we all get used to - "tea or coffee?" My supermarket example may seem a bit tongue-in-cheek but it's just one illustration. If, for example, I need healthcare I can now pick my way through the various statistics ranging from patient satisfaction to mortality rates, to the cost of parking and a sandwich and coffee, for every single hospital around. The more we have of this kind of choice the greater is our concern over making the wrong choice.

Two days ago I drove home in a new(er) car. I like the car but the sales experience leading up to this was stressful and tarnished my enjoyment. The pressure to buy various insurances to cover unforeseen (and in my view unlikely) incidents was intense and it was clear this related to bonus payments. It became a battle of wills. From their world it was a no-brainer that I should want and pay out for these extras. I said no - a word they struggled with. While the salesman pretended to do paperwork behind a closed door I was exposed to videos and pamphlets extoling the virtues of a certain car wax treatment, the horrors of wheel damage and so on. It was a stressful experience because they were calling the shots and making my choice to say no appear entirely wrong. It reminded me of all the stuff I'd read about the demotivating effects of choice where there is none and choice overload where too much is going on.

Self-protection in the form of assertion is another kind of choice. I can only speak for myself when I say I feel more content spending my time doing what I want rather than what someone else wants simply because it suits them. When I phoned to update my car insurance I had no choice but to listen to some corporate chatter before I could speak to someone. Afterwards I was automatically put through to a survey. I hung up at that point. I was paying for the call and my thoughts on the matter weren't even considered. Anything that helps us feel more content and more in control is a good thing. Then, when pressures are applied to us, we have reserves of resilience to fall back on.