April 9, 2016
"ANY customer can have a car painted any colour they like ... so long as it is black," Henry Ford (inventing the mandatory option) in 1909.*
“We should buy a Betamax VCR.” Geoff Ellis (planning to get married), ca 1982.
That can't be me; much older and no wiser. Born in a time of peace and prosperity, I scored the 1950s natal trifecta: white, male and middle class. Thanks folks. They gave me a template to grow into. Study hard, get a job, work hard, save money, buy a car, get married, buy a house, raise a family, retire and then make a choice: move to the beach, buy a caravan or take up bowls. Conformity provided comfort within the herd.
That VCR purchase was my first technological decision. Previously life had had been easy, set a budget and performance parameters. Tick the boxes, find the money. Stereo was better than mono though quadrophonic was too hard.
Today we have options. Choice is complicated. The budget is always slimmer so getting IT right is more important. Age might preclude a second chance. No matter how much research, how much advice, it always comes down to personal choice. That’s the burdensome privilege of living in an age of individualism: you make your choice and you live with it. Caveat emptor still holds true. The best choice isn’t always the right decision, as evidenced by that Betamax wedding video (part of divorce settlement ca 1985).
I packed away my toothbrush and stepped from those reflections. I added toothpaste to the shopping list then hunted for my phone and car keys. Top of that list is wireless NBN internet, which requires deeper inquisition.
In Future Shock Alvin Toffler warned of a paralysing surfeit of choice. In downtown Wonthaggi on a Wednesday morning there are four supermarkets to choose from. Where to park? I want the papers and I hate coin-operated trolleys but that other parking lot is too hard. The place with the best service is the dearest, unless it’s market day. Even then, Big W or Target might be cheaper. Time to choose with no time to think. Drive slowly and listen to the horns of discontent at my hind.
Park and pick a trolley. Walk in past the bags of open grapes that wait to be sampled. Taste buds stimulated, thank you. Those bananas are always prominent. A good price and right at hand so I grab a bunch. Don’t even need a bag. Selling to primates is so simple. I reach for the list and whatever’s on special. Fill that trolley with the best choices, our brands and myflavours. Purposeful meandering leads to the toothpaste aisle. There are four bays of toothpaste!
Research suggests that zeal to maximise choice is wrecking our well-being. Early humans progressed when compelled to check whether life would improve in the next valley or across that river. We feel that this need can now be satisfied through optimised choice. Life will be perfect with the right product.
Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and Mark Lepper of Stanford University showed that excess choice can demotivate. They divided a large number of volunteers into two groups. One was asked to choose from a selection of 30 types of chocolate. The other group could choose from six types. Subjects initially reported liking the choice of 30 chocolates, but ended up more dissatisfied with, and regretful of, the choices they made than those who only had to choose from six.
Sadly, the toothpaste we purchased last time is no longer stocked. Perfection is a deleted line. I need to choose again so I abandon a trolley load of promise to consider my toothpaste options.
There are five brands in four shelving bays. I find my brand and study the labels ... daily care; daily care with whitening; daily care with rapid relief; repair and protect; repair and protect mint; pronamel ... hang on, can I get whitening with ... my brand offers 11 variants. The other brands mock me with just as many options. I seem to have the choice of 60 different toothpastes. It feels as if they are adding more as I stand there.
Barry Schwartz, in The Paradox of Choice, says that regret avoidance and anticipated regret are the effects of over-abundant choice. "The more options there are, the more likely one will make a poor choice; this prospect reduces the pleasure one may derive from the chosen product." Similar results have been obtained from experiments with writing pens, gift boxes, coffee and even American pension plans. There is a point at which the effort required to obtain information outweighs the benefit to the consumer of the extra choice. He writes “Choice no longer liberates, but debilitates.”
Psychologists refer to assortment type when discussing the types of tradeoffs that a range of similar products demands of a consumer. An alignable assortment is one where products vary along one dimension such as size or speed. The process is “do I want more or less of this attribute?” This usually provides good outcomes. For instance, clothes stores offer dozens of size combinations so a person can find the best fit.
The other type of assortment, non-alignable, involves tradeoffs across dimensions. An optimum outcome becomes unlikely due to opportunity cost associated with features not included in the final choice. So which toothpaste? Maybe the cheapest is the best option. I could get two tubes.
At the checkout I think about questions to ask about my perfect broadband plan. I will talk to the first company after I decide which bread rolls are best. There are at least another six telcos to consider.
One way to relieve the burden of choice might be to outsource decision-making to experts. There's a proliferation of comparative websites, consultants, life coaches, counsellors, psychologists, gurus ... but which one would I choose?
Once, the best epitaph would have been “hunted and gathered well”. In the future, we might note the passing of an individual by complimenting the quality of the experts they consulted. There is still some hope before we get to that stage. Our ability to choose our state of mind can set us free from the burden of choice. Just be happy with what we have and not covet thy neighbour’s choices.
*Henry Ford chose black for his Model T after experiments showed this was the fastest drying paint colour; reduced drying time meant the production line could be sped up, thus reducing per unit cost. He made the right choice and customers benefited.
April 14, 2016
I am just thinking about the decisions I make at the supermarket too. Is it Australian produce? Is it Australian owned? Which number preservatives, colours etc?. How much sugar, salt, saturated fats, trans fats does it contain. How much packaging is included? Shampoos and toothpaste with chemicals I can’t even pronounce. What’s the use by/best by date? Comparing price /100g for value. Is it ‘fair trade’? Is it good for me?
Remember seeing a dietitian on the TV one day saying “The less processed food looks like the original product the less good it is likely to be for you” (eg. cheese versus cheesels).
I usually end up just buying fresh meat, fruit and vegetables, what’s on special and what’s Australian.
So hard and rarely able to satisfy all requirements.
Maybe we should go back to the days of old – salt instead of toothpaste, yellow blocks of Velvet soap for washing self, hair, dishes and clothes, a frayed twig as a toothbrush.
Libby Lambert, Bena
Many thanks, Geoff Ellis, for lots of laughs. I also chose happiness with what I have. As for toothpaste I buy it at health stores, not so much choice. Lots of food I get from our garden, or from Grow Lightly, a store in Korumburra which stocks locally grown and produced food.
Felicia Di Stefano, Glen Forbes
Geoff's article on the joy on FREE choice was not only very funny but also well thought out & informative. Thanks Geoff.
Daryl Hook, Pound Creek
Love the cartoon!
Geoff Ellis, Wattle Bank