Option Paralysis

Hell is other people’s menu choices. No matter how good my eggs benny, it can never be as great as her breakfast wrap. Not with those crispy, golden chunks of smashed hash brown wrapped in bacon and floating on a sea of creamy scrambled egg. I may obsess over my choice of cheese in that lunchtime cheeseburger, but I will surely come to regret not ordering his Cuban sandwich. And so it goes with cocktails, smart phones, and life partners. We are terrorised by abundant choice.

Thanks a lot, 21st Century.

There have always been those who couldn’t make up their minds, of course. My flatmate Pete could take ten or fifteen minutes of lip chewing and brow furrowing to decide whether he would abandon a lifetime of habitually ordering white bread for his toastie, just because wholemeal was an option. And then it came time to choose fillings, by which time we had all moved on to dinner. Pete was our designated vacuum guy on clean up day because by the time he’d wandered around the apartment worrying about where best to start, he would have covered pretty much all of the high traffic areas and even a couple of less-travelled byways. The crucial trick was to make sure the vacuum cleaner was running at full suck while he worked through his option paralysis.

It was Douglas Coupland who coined that phrase in Generation X — option paralysis: “the tendency, when given unlimited choices, to make none”.

I sense it stealing upon me whenever I open the Netflix app and feel that there’s nothing to watch because there’s too much to choose. With millions of albums to stream while I work, I usually write in silence or default to the same tracks I played yesterday. I will put money on the barrel-head to wager that you are no better.

While in office President Obama famously wore only blue or grey suits. “I’m trying to pare down decisions,” he told Vanity Fair. “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” With Rahm Emanuel, his first Chief of Staff, he dreamed idly of running a tee shirt stand in Hawaii when they were done. There would be only one choice of tee shirt. Medium, white.

Slavery, as George Orwell told us, is freedom. He wasn’t being a jerk. He was thinking of a time when his books would be sold in an online store which would algorithmically serve up the option of classic twentieth century literature alongside eight different models of vibrating butt plug. Take away that impossible choice and you free everyone from having to make it.

The sorrows of choice are many. In the early days of the web you could bookmark half a dozen sites and be done with it, because there was nothing much else out there after you’d clicked a couple of dozen times on The Big Red Button That Doesn’t Really Do Anything. Now you simply churn through the same shit every day because PornHub has too many categories and nobody should be forced to actually decide whether moneyshot/porcelainfigurines/yes/ohgodyes is worth a look.

There’s a lot of psychology underlying this paralysis.

Having more choice leads to regret because if your choice isn’t perfect — and it never is — just knowing you had other options implies there was something better waiting for you. What if you invest your precious time in those sexy porcelain figurine videos only to later find out about the Wedgewood wank VR subreddit?

Feeling bad about that, you lose focus on the pay off from the choice you did make and obsessively replay every aspect that led to you buying the cheaper Chinese-made buttplug, over the more expensive hand-crafted German model. It causes decision fatigue, as we daily pile up hundreds or even thousands of micro-choices and exhaust our store of resolve for the larger ones. Thus we act impulsively, or not at all.

It is a lucky thing the past was so existentially impoverished by comparison. All Winston Churchill had to do was get up, drink a magnum of champagne with his breakfast kippers and make war on Nazi Germany. If he’d had to get up and fuck-knuckle around on VinoMofo all day before he’d thought about whether to open a second front or binge-watch Riverdale, we’d probably still be arguing to this day about whether it was right to punch Nazis.


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