Too Much of a Good Thing

Choice – what’s not to like?

Choice – and plenty of it – is what progress looks like. Or so we’re told. The engine for delivering choice is, of course, the free market where, the theory tells us, the exercising of choice will allow the cream to rise to the top, leaving the optimum result. Happiness and contentment follow. Job done. 

Nice idea. However, I wonder if having lots of this choice thingy is all it’s cracked up to be. What happens when the sheer number of choices becomes bewildering, when there is simply too much to choose from? Ever been to a toy shop with kids itching to spend their allowance? Choosing can become frustrating and discontentment can follow from exposure to all the stuff they can’t have. 

The same can be said for television broadcasting (so many channels – which one to watch??), household technologies, clothing, insert the commodity of your choice (there it is again, see?). 

And what happens when the choice is about something that’s long term, complex and important, such as financial products? The theory says that, by the almighty power of the market, poorly designed, badly priced products will fail, leaving us with top notch, well designed and fairly priced pensions, savings and investment vehicles.

Take a look around. Any new mis-selling scandals? Be patient, there’s bound to be one along in a minute. 

Of course, we might argue that the market’s ‘invisible hand’ is still at work. Perhaps, but if so, are we to accept that, in the interim, countless thousands can expect to be disadvantaged as the market balances itself out? Ouch.

Musician Peter Gabriel makes the observation that the worst thing you can give an artist is lots of options: narrowing choices – for example, by limiting materials or time – forces creative thinking, driving new ways of working and unforeseen solutions. There’s also the often overlooked satisfaction that comes from working it out for yourself.

It’s a compelling perspective and one that’s lost on many people used to living and working in the land of plenty: too much of a good thing can be a real problem. In such an environment making choices requires discipline, the mental rigour to weigh a rational analysis of options against gut feel and make a clear-headed assessment of wants and needs. 

Making choices becomes increasingly difficult as the number of options increases and yet, making good choices underpins contentment and happiness – and it’s good for business.  In affluent societies learning to make choices should be seen as survival training.

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