The Paradox of Choices
[My first Toastmasters speech – inspired by a TED talk from Barry Schwartz]
When I started my journey of life a couple of decades back, a dogma was handed over to me. The dogma was – if you have to get a better future, you have to maximize your freedom. The way to maximize the freedom is to maximize the number of choices – so that I can decide more freely – a problem that probably was a part of the society we lived in.
I started my life in a small village and them moved to a small suburban town – mainly to have better choices of education. After the school days, I moved to the nearest cosmopoliton city for my graduation in computer science – to choose one from the better available jobs. Once I finished graduation, I latched into one of those but did not stop looking for better ones. I changed the city to join Microsoft at Hyderabad to have a better opportunity anywhere in India. And now, I’ve moved to US and may be looking for global choices in future. Well, everything implies an explosion of choices at each step.
Let me move out of the career and look at the options available in some space we use very frequently – a communication device. When I was a child, we used to have only a phone connection that used to sit at a fixed location. It was used for the sole purpose of voice information exchange. Now we have so many cell-phones available with so many features to choose from – a cell phone with a torch, with an FM radio or with an electric razor (you’ll soon get one in the last category if you haven’t got one yet), that it’s difficult to convince yourself that the device was actually invented for voice information exchange.
Once I am sure that I really have for a lot more choices than I used to have, I tend to question myself whether it is good for me or actually bad for me. Let me see it from a different angle. I can remember I went to a doctor last week with some problem in my teeth. The doctor said, you’ve a cavity in the teeth. So, you can decide to extract the teeth, or you can keep it as it is or you can have a root canal treatment on it and explained benefits and risks for each of them. Then he asked – “Which one should want to go ahead with?” I said “Doc, had you been me, which one you would have chosen?” Doc smiled and said “But I am not you.” As per my dogma, it should be an improvement of my life as I get to choose the process of treatment. At the same time, it’s a shift in the burden of decision making from someone who knows something, namely a doctor, to someone who knows nothing. And as the technology has advanced, we can work from anywhere at anytime. The effect is that I have to make a choice at every moment “should I work now”. If I have to make this decision continuously while watching the TV in the evening, then it certainly affects the quality of entertainment I get from the TV.
To summarize, availability of more choices is not a boon, but most of the times it is actually a burden. The very first effect of more choices is that it causes paralysis of decision-maker. Everytime I try to invest money I have to decide on where to invest – on real estate or stock market? If I invest in real estate – should I buy an empty land or an apartment or a duplex house? Should I buy it now or once I can have enough money to purchase one in the center of the city? I defer the decision for tomorrow and then that tomorrow never comes. So, I am actually loosing money only because I have more choices and I want to take the perfect decision.
Even if I somehow escape the paralysis and happen to make a decision, the presence of more options will deduct from my satisfaction. A week back, I went to garment shop to buy a pair of jeans. After trying out tens of different ones – I came out with one that indeed is hundred times better than the ones I previously had. However, I did not feel happy because although I got a better one, I did not get a perfect one. And the notion of what was perfect was raised higher in the process of trying out various options, those are better than the other in at least one aspect or other.
The burden of choice becomes heavier once it attacks my psychological space. A decade back when I used to have only a single kind of jeans available, what did I do if I find it to be wrong? I used to blame the rest of the world. Once I have hundreds of options to choose from, I actually have to admit to myself that if the choice is not perfect, it has to be my fault. This can send my thought process into an eternal space of depression. I am afraid whether I can resist it.