Why unlimited choice is bad for you and the environment

In our consumerist society we sheepishly follow the more-choice-is-better rule. Do you remember the last time standing in the super market, in one of those really big malls, and thinking “Wow, it is so cool to have the choice between nine different crisps with paprika flavour!”, or was it more like “Oh no, now I have to look at all of them and figure out which ones are best!”. For me it is surely always the latter!

crisps. . By Niels Jobstvogt CC BY-NC 4.0.jpg
Crisp shelf with plenty of choice. Image by Niels Jobstvogt, CC BY-NC 4.0.

Psychologists have identified unlimited choice as a real burden to people. „Everyone needs a fish bowl“ did Barry Schwartz, a psychologist, tell the audience in his TED talk, which was about the hidden down sides of free choice. His main message: choice is great until it becomes overwhelming. The magic number is somewhere around 5-6 options, before choosing becomes too much of a burden. When you have 1001 options and after thoughtful consideration you pick one, the possibility that there was a “better” option is extremely high – bad luck for you! Thus, you might be a much happier person, picking your groceries from a relatively small selection, as long as you have a choice between, say organic, or not, vegan, or not, gluten-free, or not, etc.

The next bigger issue is actually not the time that you are wasting making a decision of the sheer endless menu, but rather the truth that those industrial products are actually all quite similar. We are offered to choose from a monoculture of industrial products and it is sold to us as freedom of choice.
Take the beer industry for example, I sometimes wonder who on earth could tell these subtle differences between all the industrially produced lagers apart, say Budweiser, Miller, Heineken? They all taste like beer that is not bitter, not too malty, not too everything, or in other words beer that is inoffensive to the palate and mostly suited for people who don’t actually much like beer and just want to get drunk, or not even that. The taste varies so little that the character of the beer is hardly ever recognisable.
Nowadays craft brewers increasingly push into the market and safe us from this misery, but let’s not keep talking about booze now!

The neurotic fear of not making the best choice, or at least not being able to judge whether it was the best choice, has created a phenomenon called in short FOMO. FOMO is known by the younger generations as the fear of missing out.
My ex-partner is pretty good at this and I have often seen her struggle with a large restaurant menu, what to wear on a cold day, or where to rest for the lunch break. Pretty inconsequential stuff you might add, but this is no fun for anybody who is trapped in the FOMO mindset and unlimited choice is the perfect trigger for it. Do you recognize it in your own behaviour?

When you grew up in a socialist state or in a very poor neighbourhood, maybe you cherish choice as something intrinsically good, and I won’t blame you for it. Surely in Germany, after the reunification with the German Democratic Republic, people would have considered me a madman, trying to challenge the freedom of choice paradigm. When you have too little choice, unlimited choice might be a good thing, but I am pretty confident, that nowadays, 28 years after the wall fell, many people wouldn’t be that fond of it anymore.

There is also a more concrete problem with unlimited choice in consumerist societies, the trail of food waste that it leaves behind. Researchers estimated that approximately a 20-50% of the food produced worldwide gets thrown away. In the EU most food waste gets produced by the households, that is by us, and this in times of 815 million people being undernourished globally.
What does that have to do with choice, you ask? Well, to provide five different varieties of fresh tomatoes, year round, ten varieties of apples, and strawberries in winter, there has to be an ecological cost to this unnatural unseasonal choice menu.
Tomatoes grown year-round in greenhouses in the Netherlands and Spain, grapes being flown in from Chile or South Africa, onions shipped in from China, very early potatoes from Egypt’s scarce farmland. All those are economic endeavours that we encourage with our craving for unlimited choice. These behaviours lead to wastage of fresh water (for veggies grown in semi-deserts) as well as a high carbon footprint (for extra air miles), not speaking of unfair wages paid to farm workers abroad compared to local farmers, the latter who also suffer from the global competition.

Getting back to Barry Schwartz and his “fish bowl” metaphor, what he means is that more choice makes us unhappy, that is, bigger malls, with more shops, more advertisement, products, make you unhappy. Some choice as a consumer might give us a feeling of being in charge, of empowerment, maybe even making us happy for a second, but an overwhelming choice is as loveable as frying your brain in the microwave.

Barry Schwartz – the paradox of choice (20 min. TED talk)

If you search for ecological sustainability, think small! Small is good – for you and the environment. Show big business the middle finger, as they only want your cash. In the future make sure to support your local corner shop or food cooperative! Here you might be recognised, not as a customer, but as a real person. On top of that you might even be able to influence what they sell, speaking of regional, seasonal, organic, or fair trade stuff.

I have scratched only at the surface of modern consumerism and the example of food choice is just one among many. We could talk about the fashion industry, having almost invented a throw-away culture with the seasonal turn-over of new fashion trends. We could talk about cars, phones, tourist destinations, jobs, friends and partners. Yes, even the social sphere is not FOMO free. Now that we can be connected with hundreds of people 24/7, behind the scenes we make a trade-off between quality and quantity of social relationships, but that is another story.

According to the psychologist’s logic, for your happiness it is much better to live in a fish bowl with limited choice, than to live in the ocean of unlimited choice. Metaphors aside, did you ever feel overwhelmed by choice? When was the last time you actually felt really grateful for being able to choose? Let me know your personal story!

purple potatoes. By Niels Jobstvogt CC BY-NC 4.0
I admit, I once got purple potatoes. My free choice, but they didn’t exactly change my perception of potatoes. Image by Niels Jobstvogt, CC BY-NC 4.0.
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