Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Dark Side of Abundance of Choice

In our reading for Feb 24, selections from The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz tries to dispel the myth that increased number choices translates directly into increased freedom and happiness. One of his assertions is that increased number of choices, both in terms of consumer choice and lifestyle choice, may be responsible for the increasing prevalence of clinical depression in the West, due primarily to learned helplessness. To introduce the concept of learned helplessness, Schwartz referenced a study where researchers repeatedly shocked one group of animals in situations where they could escape and one group in situations where they could not escape. When the shocking was repeated with the latter group in a new situation where escape was possible, the animals would not even attempt to escape. In other words, they learn that trying to escape is useless and lose the ability to recognize when the option of escape actually is available.

I found it striking that learned helplessness is actually also applicable to an example which Schwartz invokes earlier in the reading, but which he does not explicitly connect to the concept. He points out that the number of course options and courses of study at the university level has increased rapidly over the past few decades and that students now need to make choices about their education at “a point in their intellectual development when they may lack the resources to make them intelligently.” As more and more students specialize early, it becomes more necessary to become narrowly focused on a single area in one's education in order to be a competitive candidate for employment and graduate school opportunities. The connection is that along with this early specialization comes a new-found lack of control and flexibility in spite of what would appear to be an abundance of choices. Feeling “locked into a path/system” after having to make very early career choices in a way demonstrates a kind of learned helplessness. So in this case it seems, a proliferation of initial choice seems to have indeed led to an effective decrease in choice after the initial one is made.

What does all of this have to do with food? Well, for starters, Schwartz also references a study in which individuals taste-tested 6 versus 30 options of jam. In the latter case, individuals were less likely to purchases any jam in the end (ie to choose between the various flavors). The same pattern occurred when given 6 versus 30 options of chocolate in another study. So, if people are disinclined to make choices after a certain threshold in these situations, why do we still make choices in supermarkets every day despite the potentially overwhelming variety of options? One answer might be that we're not really making choices that we need to think about very much. The choices offered in supermarkets are fairly superficial (eg between brands, even though the money goes to the same large conglomerate), whereas more substantive kinds of choices (eg buying from local sources vs. from large corporations) are largely absent. I would argue that even choosing between different kinds of jam and chocolate in a scientific study is more substantive than the kinds of choices which we make while at the supermarket because in the former case, involving a taste-test, we're judging items back to back on a complicated set of presently experienced gustatory criteria rather than on our gut reaction to which box is more aesthetically appealing or which product we think we'll like better (the latter, and quite possibly the former, being heavily influenced by advertising).

Consumers are already overwhelmed by the potential choices which bombard them at the supermarket even before taking into account alternative sources of food. Add to that the choices within the supermarket to be made about health, nutritional balance, organic vs. non-organic, local vs. non-local, not to mention how to sort through all of the conflicting information available to make these decisions, and it's easy to understand why consumers might be in a tizzy. Perhaps this abundance of superficial and not-so-superficial choices overwhelms us to the point of learned helplessness and is in part why it is difficult to bring the social, economic, ethical, environmental and political issues surrounding food into public forums (at least, not without those already in control of the food system framing the debate).

Another facet to this might be that, perhaps, like the students mentioned above, people feel “locked into a path/system” with regard to their food choices. Indeed, the discussion of large companies and agribusiness framing the debate -and making themselves a necessary component of any potential options which are put on the table- is one which has often been brought up throughout this course. The modern supermarket has become such a fixture in our lives that the fact that it, as we learned in Stuffed and Starved, had its origin in a patent design aimed at increasing purchasing and decreasing staffing costs is largely masked. The notion that a supermarket is an innovation, that it was invented, rather than just a fact of life isn’t one which the majority of the public has likely considered.

It seems also that implied in the notion that abundance of choice equates with freedom is the idea that individual failures are strictly the fault of the individual. In a way, it hides barriers which do exists and implies that individuals have more control over their lives and choices than they really do, which translates into stress, depression, and helplessness for the individual not simply because there are barriers but also because the individual is blamed for any failings to which those barriers may have contributed. In some ways, I think this line of thinking also contributes to the kinds of attitudes which people who grew up in this culture bring to foreign policy. Focusing on the choices of poor farmers rather than the larger context in which any given "choice" was made allows us to continue to ignore the real issues at play and blame the individuals rather than the system when something goes wrong.

So, there are a few things we can potentially conclude from all this. First of all, we can choose between Price Chopper and Walmart, but on the whole, the choice, along with that of anything else that we buy in those stores, is a superficial one that perpetuates the status quo. Our money, whether spent on organic fair trade products or heavily processed junk food, goes to the same corporations (see the link below) and expands the same kinds of inequalities and environmental problems we've discussed at length so far in this course. More insidious, I think, is that it appears that the abundance of superficial choices drowns out the more substantive ones, making us less likely to seek out, examine, and reflect on these myriad issues surrounding our food choices. And unlike choosing between flavors of potato chips, substantive food choices really do have profound economic, social, and environmental consequences attached. People generally seem fairly apathetic, or perhaps ignorant, when it comes to examining the social impacts which go along with their food purchases; the main area of concern for most people seems to be, rather, food safety, which is only one small part of the picture.

Thus, I think that the emphasis on abundance of choice in our culture cripples our ability to understand what it really means to have a "choice." This is not only detrimental to our own ability to recognize substantive alternatives, but also likely makes us less inclined to recognize when people who are in unfavorable situations are there because they were deprived of substantive choices. This is a prospect which is rather discouraging when trying to increase awareness of what happens to those who are on the more blatantly unfavorable end of the food system. In light of this, the overabundance of superficial food choices really is the opposite of empowering, and without empowerment, having the freedom to act -having the freedom to choose- is largely a hypothetical rather than a reality, and given that these choices do carry so much weight, this isn't something to be taken lightly.

Schwartz, Barry.The Paradox of Choice. Harper Perennial. 2004.
Patel, Raj. Stuffed and Starved. Melville House Publishing. 2007.

1 comment:

  1. You make a powerful argument here. One line struck me as particularly provocative:

    "Perhaps this abundance of superficial and not-so-superficial choices overwhelms us to the point of learned helplessness and is in part why it is difficult to bring the social, economic, ethical, environmental and political issues surrounding food into public forums (at least, not without those already in control of the food system framing the debate)."

    I would be very interested in hearing responses to this idea from other members of the class.