Wednesday, February 25, 2009

On having lots of choices

A post on Signal vs Noise quotes Eknath Easwaran's Take Your Time—Finding Balance in a Hurried World (chapter 5):

People are subject to trifling likes and dislikes every day. There seems to be no end to the division and subdivision of taste. In India, in those days, if I wanted ice cream after a meal, I simply ordered ice cream. At most there might have been two or three flavors; often there was only one. Today I have one hundred and forty-seven varieties to choose from, and it’s not enough to want chocolate; I have to decide between possibilities like Dutch, Bittersweet, Super Fudge Wonder, and Chewy White Chocolate Macadamia. (Often I just tell the clerk, “Give me the one you like best.”) And for coffee I have to specify French Roast, Colombian, Kona, or one of a dozen other varieties. I know people whose whole day is affected when they can’t get the coffee they like, made just the way they like it. As our preferences get fractioned finer and finer like this, the range of what we can tolerate narrows to a slit—in everything, because this is a habit of the mind.
To which I added a comment
I think that’s a bit muddled.

It makes the reasonable point that you don’t always want to be presented with a bazillion choices, especially where there’s only small differences between them.

But it comes across a complaint about choice, as if it was all bad. Lots of choices is, itself, not a problem. It’s when you’re forced to deal with them at once.

Would you prefer to live in a city where there’s only three different meals you can ever have for dinner, or would you prefer to live in a city where there’s a large variety of different ethnic cuisines available?

The quote also suggests that having fine-grained preferences - wanting White Chocolate Macadamia - means inflexibility: only being satisfied by that. “As our preferences get fractioned finer and finer like this, the range of what we can tolerate narrows to a slit”.

But that’s not necessarily so. At particular times, at particular places, in particular moods, I might feel like that flavor, and at other times and places, I might want something else. We get bored and want to try new things.

And if you’ve only got a few options available, isn’t it easy to develop prejudices? We probably all know people who grew up eating one type of food and won’t dare touch food of an unfamiliar cuisine.

If you’re beyond a certain age, you’ve probably gone from growing up in a world with fewer choices to a world with many more choices. Perhaps this means we didn’t develop very good skills for handling choice. Perhaps the kids of today will manage much better? I don’t know, but this possibility seems to get overlooked.

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