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Little over a generation ago the humble snack came in just a trio of flavours: ready salted, cheese and onion, or salt and vinegar. Today the choice is tongue-tingling: Thai sweet chilli, balsamic vinegar and caramelised onion, Oriental red curry, lime and coriander chutney, vintage cheddar and onion chutney, buffalo mozzarella and herbs, chicken tikka masala.
And those are merely the varieties confected by a single crispmaker, Walkers, a division of PepsiCo, which turns out 10m bags of crisps every day for the British market alone. Crisps these days can be crinkle-cut, thick-cut, ridge-cut, square-cut, hand-fried, reduced fat, sold in six-packs, grab bags, party size or family packs. Wheel a trolley down the aisle of any modern Western hypermarket, and the choice of all sorts is dazzling.
The average American supermarket now carries 48, items, according to the Food Marketing Institute, more than five times the number in Britain's Tesco stocks 91 different shampoos, 93 varieties of toothpaste and of household cleaner. Carrefour's hypermarket in the Paris suburb of Montesson, a hangar-like place filled with everything from mountain bikes to foie gras, is so vast that staff circulate on rollerblades.
Choice seduces the modern consumer at every turn. Jeans come flared, bootlegged, skinny, cropped, straight, low-rise, bleach-rinsed, dark-washed or distressed. Moisturiser nourishes, lifts, smooths, revitalises, conditions, firms, refreshes and rejuvenates. Tropicana, another part of PepsiCo, turns out freshly pulped juice in more than 20 different varieties, up from just six in ; it says there could be as many as 30 in the next decade. Thanks to a mix of modern medicine, technology and social change, choice has expanded from the grocery shelf to areas that once had few or none.
Faces, noses, wrinkles, breasts and bellies can be remodelled, plumped or tucked. America in alone saw 2. Teenagers can choose to surf, chat, tweet, zap or poke in ways that their parents can barely fathom. Moving pictures and music can be viewed, recorded, downloaded or streamed on all manner of screens or devices. The internet has handed huge power to the consumer to research options, whether of medical procedures or weekend breaks.
Even the choice of price-comparison sites to help people choose is expanding. Offline choices have multiplied too. European Union citizens can move, study, work and live wherever they like within the union. Vouchers and other school reforms in many countries give parents increasing choice over where to send their children.
Modular university courses offer students endless combinations. The University of California, Berkeley, has over degree programmes, including Buddhist Studies and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies, each made up of scores of courses. Choice has come to some of life's biggest personal decisions as well. In many countries couples can decide whether and where to marry, cohabit, divorce or remarry.
Internet dating promises to find a match from a database of potential partners. Women in the rich world can choose when, and whether, to reproduce.
Will I find love again? Is this it? Mothers and sometimes fathers can choose to work, or not, or take time off to raise children and then go back to their jobs. New life can be created against the odds. For sufferers from many chronic illnesses, life in old age can be prolonged—or ended. Many of these options have improved life immeasurably in the rich world, and to a lesser extent in poorer parts. They are testimony to human ingenuity and innovation.
Free choice is the basis on which markets work, driving competition and generating economic growth. It is the cornerstone of liberal democracy. The 20th century bears the scars of too many failed experiments in which people had no choice. But amid all the dizzying possibilities, a nagging question lurks: is so much extra choice unambiguously a good thing?
Over the past decade behavioural scientists have come up with some intriguing insights. In one landmark experiment, conducted in an upmarket grocery store in California, researchers set up a sampling table with a display of jams. In the first test they offered a tempting array of 24 different jams to taste; on a different day they displayed just six. Shoppers who took part in the sampling were rewarded with a discount voucher to buy any jam of the same brand in the store.
It turned out that more shoppers stopped at the display when there were 24 jams. Expectations have been inflated to such an extent that people think the perfect choice exists. The researchers repeated the experiment with chocolate as well as student essay topics and found similar results. Others have since come up with similar results from experiments with writing pens, gift boxes, coffee and even American k pension plans.
It is not all that way: German researchers, by contrast, found that shoppers were not put off by too much choice, whether of jams, chocolates or jelly beans—though this may be down to Germany's price-conscious shoppers and the sheer dreariness of the country's supermarkets. As options multiply, there may be a point at which the effort required to obtain enough information to be able to distinguish sensibly between alternatives outweighs the benefit to the consumer of the extra choice.
It might even be said to tyrannise. Indeed, the expectation of indecision can prompt panic and a failure to choose at all. Too many options means too much effort to make a sensible decision: better to bury your head under a pillow, or have somebody else pick for you. The vast majority of shoppers in the Californian grocery store faced with 24 jam varieties simply chose not to buy any. The more expensive an item—a car, say—the more daunting the decision.
Surely, though, knowing that lots of choice is out there still feels good? The thrill is in the anticipation of falling upon the perfect Tuscan hotel, or shade of duck-egg blue with which to repaint the kitchen. Or the reassurance that competition to supply all that choice of electricity or telephony is keeping prices down and pushing service up. But not, according to psychologists, if more choice raises expectations too high, which may make even a good decision feel bad.
The potential for regret about the options not taken—the faster car, the hotel with the better view—seems to be greater in the face of multiple choices. Consider seduction. Internet dating sites promise to find the perfect match with just a few clicks of the mouse. Confusion, indecision, panic, regret, anxiety: choice seems to come at a price. It could be that today's children, growing up in a world of abundant choice, will find decisions even harder to take when they grow up. Their lives may be packed with instant choices as they zap from one site to another while texting a friend and listening to music on YouTube.
But much of this is reflexive activity. In adult life, they aren't equipped to cope. Ever since the 19th century, when Levi Strauss began to stitch denim jeans for Americans and Abram Lyle started to sell tins of golden syrup to the English, brand managers have made it their business to offer shoppers an easier life.
Brands simplify choices. They are a guarantee of quality or consistency in a confusing market, and a badge of trust. Companies spend heavily on marketing and legal advice to protect or reinvent their brands and keep customers loyal, exploiting customers' aversion to choice.
The more that options multiply, the more important brands become. Today, when paralysed by bewildering choice, a consumer will often turn to a brand that is cleverly marketed to appear to be one that others trust. The anti-globalisation and green movements have stirred a consumer backlash against a surfeit of choice. Despite the crisp flavourologists' best efforts, there is a limit to how many packs can be stacked on a supermarket shelf.
What of stuff that is distributed digitally, however, where choice is almost limitless? Technology has cut media distribution costs and made available a vast new array of material that caters to specialised or obscure tastes, in music, video or the written word. It turns out, however, that despite the availability of all the extra stuff the hits are as important as ever. In there were films released in America, up from in , not to mention the gigabytes of videos and film uploaded or shared online.
However many niches there are, in other words, film-goers or TV viewers still want to watch what everybody else is watching, and musicians still manage to release mega-hits. Indeed, in a world that celebrates individualism and freedom, many people decide to watch, wear or listen to exactly the same things as everybody else. In small corners of the temples of consumption, business has begun to wake up to the perils of excess choice. Some firms have pruned their ranges to avoid confusing shoppers.
L'Astrance, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris's swanky 16th arrondissement, offers no choice at all on its menu: Pascal Barbot, the chef, concocts what he fancies from produce picked up in the market that day. And sometimes less really is more. At the same time the anti-globalisation and green movements have stirred a consumer backlash against a surfeit of choice.
Campaigns urge shoppers to buy locally grown fruit in season, and to shun cherries in winter or green beans flown in from Kenya. Courses promise to help people shed the distractions and stresses of the consumerist world and journey towards their inner wholeness. The advice seems to boil down to shopping less often, keeping less stuff, watching less TV and sending fewer e-mails.
Life coaches offer to help with the perplexity of bigger choices. Dealing with the strains and expectations of choice is today's payback.
In the past they would have just got on with it. Fifty years after the contraceptive pill was first licensed in America and 37 years after the Supreme Court legalised abortion, women seem to agonise more than ever about breeding.
Sometimes, says Ms Follini, choosing is about learning to live without control. Those in the business of helping people choose offer various tips.
Sometimes it's not. This article appeared in the Christmas Specials section of the print edition under the headline "You choose". Reuse this content The Trust Project. More from Christmas Specials The sleuth of death row What does it take to become a death-row detective?
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The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later
O nce upon a time in Springfield, the Simpson family visited a new supermarket. In doing so, the Simpsons were making a choice to reduce their choice. This comes to mind because Tesco chief executive Dave Lewis seems bent on making shopping in his stores less baffling than it used to be. This was, in part, a response to the growing market shares of Aldi and Lidl, which only offer between 2, and 3, lines.
In the book, for example, he explores the stress people feel when confronted with ample opportunity, and the regret that follows from choosing poorly whose fault is it other than mine? He also discusses our loss of presence why am I doing this when I could be doing that? Over the past decade, the ideas presented in The Paradox of Choice have not run dry. Over the past decade, do any particular events, trends, or general changes in the culture stick out to you as suggesting that The Paradox of Choice was right?
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In the book, Schwartz argues that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers. Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being , and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don't seem to be benefiting from it psychologically. Schwartz assembles his argument from a variety of fields of modern psychology that study how happiness is affected by success or failure of goal achievement. Schwartz compares the various choices that Americans face in their daily lives by comparing the selection of choices at a supermarket to the variety of classes at an Ivy League college. There are now several books and magazines devoted to what is called the " voluntary simplicity " movement. Its core idea is that we have too many choices, too many decisions, too little time to do what is really important.