The Prison of Choice


October 18, 2012 by cbbeard

Have you been to the cereal aisle of your grocery store lately?  I don’t generally do the grocery shopping for my household because my wife won’t let me; I have a tendency to add to the list as I go and buy things we don’t need (Little Debbie oatmeal cream pies, anyone?).  But a few weeks ago my wife let me go with her on a grocery shopping expedition.  We took the list, which contained one month’s worth of groceries, and divided it up.  Most of the items on the list were specifically identified; I knew what brand and what size to get.  So I was doing a good job rolling through the list, but then I came to the cereal.  The list said “one large box of generic raisin bran, and another large box of healthy cereal.”  She put “healthy” on there because she knows I’m a sucker for Fruit Loops and Frosted Flakes.  But I wish she would have been more specific.

When I got to the cereal aisle, I was stumped.  I couldn’t believe how many choices of cereal I had to choose from.  In fact, I did a search and found out that the store where I was shopping had 642 different breakfast cereal choices. SIX HUNDRED and FORTY TWO!  It made me wonder, why in the world do I need so many cereal choices?  Is my life better for having so many choices?

That latter question is a good one to ponder.  Generally we have a tendency to think that the more choices we have, the better life is.  But it turns out that more choices may not equal better living. In his book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz (2004) suggested that the “official dogma of Western industrialized society” is that maximizing choice is the way to maximize the welfare of society, and that even though that stance is widely accepted to the point where it has become ingrained in society, it is a fallacy.

Schwartz suggested that the maximization of choice actually causes more damage than good, and he pointed out four main negative effects of too many choices:

1. Too many choices produce paralysis rather than liberation.

I bought a tablet computer at the beginning of this year.  I wanted to use it for school since most books are available in electronic form these days, and carrying 20 books is easier on a tablet than it is in a backpack.  I also wanted to use it for preaching, using the tablet rather than paper notes.  So I bought a tablet.

Here’s the back story, however; it took me over three months to decide what to buy.  I had decided to buy a tablet long before I bought one, but it took me that long to decide what I wanted.  The reason?  Too many choices!  My fear in buying a tablet was that I would buy the wrong tablet.  So I did research; I looked online at reviews and went to Best Buy several times just to check out my options in person.  I asked around for input and read the feedback ratings from online electronic stores.  But every time I thought I was ready to buy, I would question my decision.  So it took me over three months.

Some might say that I was doing due diligence, but in reality I was struck by a case of “paralysis by analysis.”  The many choices before me were not liberating, they were paralyzing!  And that wasn’t a very fun experience.

2. We are less satisfied with our choices.

With so many choices available, once we make the decision it’s easy to question that decision and consider an “imagined alternative” that might have been the better choice.

I often have this problem at a restaurant.  Sometimes I just can’t decide what to order and once I do, I often end up with “entre` envy” where I see the dish someone else has ordered and wish I would have ordered that instead.  Most of the time it doesn’t matter how good my meal is, I still wonder if that other meal might have been much better!

With so many choices also comes “opportunity cost” in which we must give up something else that is appealing to make the choices we make.  Every acceptance of a choice is rejection of another, and our minds tend to dwell on this.

3. Expectations go up.

Limited choices result in limited expectations; unlimited choices result in unlimited expectations.  Henry Ford famously said about the Model T that people could have the car any color they wanted, as long as that color was black.  At that time, the choice of automobiles was easy; there weren’t a lot of options to choose from.  And even if you didn’t like the color black or if the car broke down a lot, you could still be generally satisfied because you really didn’t have any other expectations; it wasn’t like there were cars available that were red and more reliable.

Fast forward to today, however, and things are different.  There are so many different cars and options available that we tend to think that we can find the “right one.”  With all of those options we should be able to find one that fits our taste of style, comfort, and reliability.  So what happens is when we make our decision and have our car, and something isn’t quite right about it, then we are disappointed.  As Schwartz said, our choices leave very little room for pleasant surprises.

4. Disappointment shifts to the individual chooser.

Let’s go back to that car you bought for a second.  When you find out that the car you bought isn’t exactly what you expected, whose fault is that?  Certainly we can place a bit of blame on the manufacturer, but ultimately the fault comes back squarely on our shoulders.  We had a plethora of choices, and surely one of those choices would have been the ideal choice.  If we have disappointment in our choice, then we simply made the wrong choice!

The prison of choice isn’t limited to what we buy, far from it.  Perhaps the divorce rate is as high as it is due in part to people thinking they made the “wrong” choice and that they picked the “wrong one” to marry.  Maybe people change careers so frequently (some studies say 7 times) because they have set expectations too high based on the number of choices available.  Maybe the reason the average family is so strung out and busy is because they are afraid of missing out or making the wrong choice, so they try to fit as much in as possible.  Regardless, the bottom line here is that more choices often make life much more difficult rather than making life easier and more satisfying.

But let me offer a little different take.  I agree with Schwartz and his assessment of the damage that the amount of choices causes to society, but I don’t think the problem is with the choices themselves.  Instead, I believe the issue is in what those choices represent.  For Western industrialized society and the United States in particular, choices do represent freedom.  More specifically, they represent life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  The reason choices become so paralyzing is that we have put so much stock in the fulfillment we hope to get from those choices.  The reason we are less satisfied is because we still aren’t happy with our choices, and so we long for another chance at picking the right thing.  The reason we have such high expectations is because those choices have often become an idol in our lives.  And the reason we are disappointed in ourselves is that if those choices do not bring us life, liberty, and happiness, then we are left with no one to blame other than ourselves.

We buy into phrases like “the American dream, you can be whatever you want to be and do whatever you set your mind to, the sky’s the limit” and other clichés that subconsciously teach us that fulfillment is up to us.  We have reduced a successful life to having the right spouse, the right job, and the right stuff.  Simply put, we depend on ourselves and our choices to bring us full life.

The truth is, there is only one choice that can bring satisfaction, and that choice is submission to God through faith in Jesus.  When Paul wrote in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” he wasn’t talking about overcoming life’s adversities or jumping buildings in a single bound.  He was talking about what he had just said in verses 11-12 – I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  Paul was saying that satisfaction comes from Christ alone, and that satisfaction can be found in any situation…even if you buy the wrong tablet, order the wrong entre`, pick the wrong car, or take a seemingly wrong turn in life.

It’s time to escape the prison of choice!

What do you think?  Do you agree that the more choices we have, the worse things get?  What are some other ways that the glut of choices in affluent society affects faith and the church?  What is your choice of cereal out of 642 options???

Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less (1st ed.). New York: Ecco
Schwartz, B. (n.d.) TED Talk – “The Paradox of Choice”  –

One thought on “The Prison of Choice

  1. Tom McLeod says:

    A “life formula” that I learned long ago is: ‘Happiness Quotient = expectation / reality’. Thus if you expected to get a bill for $200 from the garage (expectation) and the bill was only $100 (reality) you would have a HQ of 200/100 or 2. On the other hand if you expected a bill of $100 but the reality was $200 your HQ would be 100/200 or 1/2. Any HQ less than one means you are disappointed to some degree. Many people blame advertising (or too many choices) for raising our expectations, but I think the issue is more that we don’t really have clear expectations–and often if we are willing to state our expectations in words we can see how silly they are—“I want that breakfast cereal to make me smart, handsome, charming, rich and full of energy!”. So with people who aren’t happy with church, — we need to ask them (or ourselves) “What did you really expect?”, “What would it really look like if it was the way you wanted?” –‘never a boring sermon’-‘I like every song played’, ‘ everyone pays attention to me–but never noses into my life’, etc. etc.

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