paradox of choice
It’s a typical scene, a husband and wife trying to choose a restaurant for dinner. I don’t remember what it was like before the smartphone. I assume my wife and I would’ve gone out with spears and stalked the nearest wooly mammoth. I can’t remember. These days it’s a little more exhausting.
The paradox of choice, introduced in the early 2000s by psychologist Barry Schwartz, is perhaps the original “first world problem”. When it comes to problems that aren’t a problem, it’s the OG. The basic concept is this: when faced with an abundance of freedom and choice, we come up against anxiety, decision paralysis, and the fear of missing out.
It’s a controversial thesis, and not always replicable, but it certainly hints at something that resonates with me. We’re seeing the negative results of an informational over-abundance play out in our online lives. When you combine unlimited choice with complete access to pretty much any piece of information or any consumer product, making a decision can seem outright overwhelming. Just ask the thirty-seven items sitting in my Amazon shopping cart.
When picking out a restaurant, it’s already enough that we have a dozen types of food to pick from. Tonight I’m thinking sushi or Mexican or maybe pizza. Or maybe that place with the bowls. After narrowing it down by genre, you’re left with at least a dozen local restaurants. But that’s not the real overdose of information, because next comes the hundreds of neighbors who have reviewed each of those dozen local restaurants on Yelp or Google or the side of a bathroom stall in black marker. What was originally a choice between restaurants has become a choice between dissenting opinions, a choice between the types of people you see yourself as.
You move into a game where you are no longer evaluating restaurants, you are evaluating reviews of restaurants. You’re mentally reviewing the quality of the reviewer as a human and as a judge of quality. This person complained about the viscosity of the salsa, but then again they also sound like a complete asshole, so I’m not sure I should trust them. All the while dealing with the fact that the reviewer may not be real in the first place.
Freedom of choice combined with internet review culture has stunted our ability to go with the flow. There’s two ways to react to this flood of information. My wife goes for maximum information consumption. She’ll read every review, visit every restaurant’s website, comb through the menu, check their Instagram, and even call up the owner’s mother to assess childhood trauma that might affect the quality of the sashimi.
I am certain that she could come across a review written by her future self, detailing exactly how the meal would go if she were to eat there that very night, with pictures and a video testimonial, and she’d still want to check just a few more reviews to be sure.
I take the opposite approach. I shut the whole system down. I aim for the nearest, easiest restaurant. If there’s a restaurant a half-mile further with a half-star more, I don’t care. If it’s the Jimboy’s taco shop inside of a Shell gas station (not making this up), I’ll consider it. I let geography take the blame.
Of course, my wife ends up picking the better meal; it just takes an hour. And she spends the meal wondering out loud whether we should’ve gone with Option A instead of Option B. She gets a great meal with a small side of FOMO.
I pick a mediocre restaurant, or a restaurant that I’ve been to a hundred times before. I’m willfully unaware that there was a better meal out there, if only I’d put in a little extra effort. I get a mediocre meal with a very intentional attempt at ‘ignorance is bliss’. And a potential side of diarrhea.
So mostly we just eat at home. It’s easier and I already know exactly how my childhood trauma will play out on the steak.
At dinner the other night my daughter was complaining about some roasted radishes. My wife made the case that roasted radishes are a good substitute for roasted potatoes. I wondered how far we’d gone that we needed a good substitute for potatoes. I thought potatoes were doing their job just fine. My daughter made that case that they were yucky, and for additional emphasis she contorted her face into a cartoon grimace and held it there until she was sure we’d seen it.
Did you know, I asked my daughter, that not all food has to taste amazing? Sometimes we just throw in some spinach or mushrooms or something because it’s good for us, not because the taste is that good. Some ingredients just taste OK. And that’s OK because they’re really good for us.
She paused and muttered a “huh” to herself in a way that either meant complete understanding or complete ignorance.
“Is there anything else that you need to tell me?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Is there any other things that you want to tell me about?”
Let the information consumption begin.