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Freedom of choice in our everyday lives


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At uni today, I watched a prerecorded lecture delivered by a college professor named Barry Schwartz. In this lecture, Schwartz discussed the psychological connection between freedom of choice and happiness: his theory is that having a greater amount of choices in life diminishes our overall happiness.

Here is an example that Schwartz provided. All his life, his typical daily attire included a pair of blue jeans. When he was younger, there was only one type of jeans to choose from, and that was the type that everybody who wore them had to grow accustomed to. Skip to the present time when Schwartz decides to buy a new pair of jeans; when he goes to the store, he is overwhelmed by the sheer number of different types of jeans: ankle jeans, low-rise jeans, bell-bottoms, straight, baggy, whatever. After spending hours searching through the variety, he manages to find one that is a great fit for him, even better than his old pairs of jeans. However, at the same time, he is disappointed because his expectations for jeans have increased after being exposed to so much to choose from.

The psychology behind this – and I’m sure all of you have experienced this multiple times – is that we tend to regret our decisions when we know we could have made a better choice. Whether it involves buying a pair of pants or deciding between finding a career or having children first, we are constantly making choices in our day by day lives. You have to choose between which courses you want to take next quarter in college, you have to decide whether to buy this car or that car, you have to evaluate what medical advice you ought to follow. Not only is the sheer amount of choices to make overwhelming, but typically you have the luxury of deciding when to make this choice – especially if you have an opportunity to change your mind later on.

Society has evolved to the point where there’s no such thing as a cell phone that doesn’t do too much. But when there is no barrier or reasonable limit to what we can do, are we really that better off? The reason why we may become disappointed after making a choice – or, as many people would know it in shoppers’ terms, “buyers’ remorse” – is because it is our responsibility alone for making that choice. It's our fault when we make a choice that isn't so great. When we have so much to choose from, one of those choices is bound to be the best one, right? Even if we make a choice that is good and right, we are liable to feel a little guilty over it, causing us to try and reason with ourselves whether or not the choice we made was the right one.

Another prerecorded lecture that was shown (I can’t remember the lecturer’s name) dealt with the issue of synthetic happiness vs. natural happiness, and why people tend to believe that synthetic happiness is somehow inferior to that of natural happiness. The lecturer discussed a recently conducted study involving a group of people having to choose between two prints. One group was told that they had to ultimately decide on the spot and that their decision was final, while the other group was told that they had four days to change their mind and exchange their print should they decide that they were dissatisfied with what they got. The results? Those who were forced to choose on the spot tended to be happier with their print of choice, because after settling with it right away, they had the mental reasoning that they couldn’t have chosen otherwise due to their restrictions. The people who had four days to change their mind constantly agonized over whether their print was better, or whether they should exchange it. Even after the said four days, they felt a lingering sense of regret over their decision due to the possibility that they could have settled for better, but probably didn't.

So what do you guys think? Obviously, it’s pretty clear to us all that having absolutely no choice whatsoever is pretty bad, and we all pretty much know the good things about having a lot of choices, after all. But as far as the disadvantages of having a lot of choices go, is it always good for us to constantly have a buffet table in front of us, or should we balance it out by having our waiter ask us for our order on the spot? Should there be a relative limit of sorts to what choices we make and when we make them? Having an entire month to study for an exam, after all, can become a lot more pressurizing near the end than only having a week to prepare for it, and I think this is an interesting perspective to consider, one that I find myself agreeing with due to having constantly pondered this issue in the past.

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There's so much in your post that I'd like to take it apart and discuss it in detail, but that isn't going to happen. Way too lazy and superficial.

I think the worst scenario is having no choice but being aware that there are choices and that others have choice by right. That is the definition of powerlessness.

The most utopian scenario is having the the right to choose, but never having to because what presents itself is perfect for your needs.

In between the two, the confusion of having too much variety and having to satisfy conflicting criteria, some of them other people's, is a sign of our distance from a survival economy.

I also wonder if the stress involved in choice arises from the conviction that the best is possible. Really, I think it probably isn't.

Edited by Foxy
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