Are We Overwhelmed by Too Many Choices?

| May / June 2003

Americans are often told that we are the world’s freest people—and our government claims to be on a crusade to extend that freedom to nations afflicted by “evil” regimes. Freedom is an inspiring ideal, but in the real world it’s a matter of choices—where to live, how to love, whom to vote for. And even in America, choices get tangled up in problems. Why does limitless consumer choice end up exhausting us? What does it mean that many things that used to be facts of life—from sexuality to religion—are choices today? And where’s the balance between the unchosen realities that anchor us (race, geography, history) and choices that liberate us?—The Editors

Americans today are the guinea pigs in one of the world’s boldest social experiments. For the first time in history “the freedom to choose” has become a national ideal—and rallying cry—overriding nearly all other values grounded in moral, religious, or ethnic traditions. Middle-class Americans born since World War II enjoy a range of possibilities that earlier generations couldn’t have dreamed of. I know that having choices is supposed to be a good thing. Certainly it’s an indication of living in comfort rather than poverty. But I, for one, am feeling a little overwhelmed.

I’m a pretty calm sort, and I try to make choices in an informed, deliberate way. But from simple decisions at the hardware store to bigger life questions, I’m often reeling from the sheer volume of options I face each day. In fact, many people I know are caught in a similar love/hate relationship with choices—reveling in all the opportunities available, but also feeling downright oppressed by them.

Our choices seem especially fraught with anxiety now as the clothes, schools, jobs, food, homes, and cars we select are more than ever declarations of who we are. You are not just buying shoes or wine or gifts for the kids; with each decision you are constructing an identity for all the world to see and judge you by. This raises the pressure on making the right decision. You may feel increasingly frustrated by how little time you have to sort through all the options. You may continually question whether you’ve made the best decisions. Knowing what you really want can sometimes seem impossible.

Even taking all this into account, it’s still easy for me to blame myself for having a hard time making up my mind. The inability to act decisively, after all, has always been seen in American culture as a sign of moral weakness, poor character, or just plain wishy-washyness. But through the years I have learned that if I take one step back from my anxiety about making decisions, I find there’s something bigger than my own inadequacies at play. While personally I might fear making the wrong choice, being incorrectly stereotyped, or missing out on one thing if I choose another, larger questions loom. If everyone is increasingly consumed by a barrage of choices (multiply “paper or plastic” by 100), who has a clear enough mind and sufficient blocks of time to consider the important issues that affect us all? I doubt that I am the only person, in this war-filled, malnourished world who feels a sense of moral quandary upon finding myself in a ridiculously overstuffed cereal aisle at the supermarket.

Margaret Mead warned 75 years ago in her anthropological classic Coming of Age in Samoa that “a society which is clamoring for choice, which is filled with many articulate groups, each urging its own brand of salvation, its own variety of economic philosophy, will give each new generation no peace until all have chosen or gone under, unable to bear the condition of choice. The stress is in our civilization.”

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