Choice Is Making Us Stupid

The thing that was supposed to set us free, has done anything but

Darren Stephens
Oct 23, 2020 · 11 min read

One of the great pillars of the neo-liberal worldview that has been the dominant socio-economic driver in the UK over the last four decades is about the benefits of choice. It’s almost been a mantra since the days of Margaret Thatcher, and her political successors have gone with it, in some cases to an almost insane degree. It has affected almost every aspect of life, from education, to healthcare, to transport. And in that time, while the benefits of choice and plurality are in some cases good, often they have been bent in ways that often don’t make sense, and are often toxic.

Choice is good, therefore more choice is better. Everyone knows that, don’t they? To think otherwise is stupid. Take a simple example. Next time you go to buy a cup of coffee, don’t buy what you usually buy. Take the time to actively choose something different, and see how much effort you have to expend just to choose what kind of hot drink you want. We are forced to do this kind of choosing more and more often, for more and more things: the food we eat, the TV we watch, our mobile and broadband contracts (1), the company our energy is supplied by, the education of our children … the list is almost endless, and it never stops. It’s hard work to keep making choices. And it adds up. It may seem faintly amusing to have the option of a dozen different types of syrup to add to the dozen types of coffee and the half dozen types of milk, but when you also get the same range of options buying a burger, or wandering down the aisles at your local supermarket, each of them in turn suck time and effort away from you as you have to make each indvidual choice. It never ends.

It’s tiring. So what do most of us do?

We stop choosing. We settle on one or two things we know, and we stick to them. Many of us are creatures of habit, so we switch off and ignore this supposedly empowering choice. What would happen if there was just a bit less of it? How much would many of us even notice? So advertising and marketing has had to become ever more adept at simultaneously making people try to change their choices, and stay with the familiar. This is slightly odd, because mostly the incentives offered are for people who do change often, not the ones who don’t. Those who retreat to habit are generally either frightened or lulled by the lure of the familiar, while we tend to reward people for acting capriously.

You have to ask yourself why we spend all that effort making the choices. It’s because we know instinctively that some choices are better than others. If they weren’t why would we spend all that effort choosing between them? But that has a corollary: not everyone can have the best available choice. So many will have to settle for a lesser one than they hoped. The power to sidestep that disappointment is often down to wealth or privilege. Worse yet, most of us know the deck is rigged. The most privileged can afford to make the “best” choices, and have the widest choice available to them. But for them, they are not even choosing from the whole list — merely a subset. Below a certain point in tht list they are simply not interested in what’s available. If they want a new car, they’ll buy the Aston, not the Dacia, which doesn’t even make their radar, or worse yet, they will delegate making the choice to someone else, like a personal shopper, or some other benighted hired lackey.

To be very clear though, choice is not, in itself, entirely bad. The ability to make reasoned choices about important things is generally healthy because it allows at least some control over your life and welfare. You can exercise choice when receiving medical treatment, or if you need a solicitor, for example. You can exercise choice in elections. Whatever your views about the general awfulness of political parties and politicians currently happens to be, you can at least choose which lizard gets in (2). It’s just one reason why custodial sentences exist for crime — the removal of freedom and control is a punishment. Losing the freedom of choice can be a powerful disincentive, though of course that works less well if you don’t have many choices to lose in the first place.

The feeling of powerlessness in being deprived of meaningful choices can be damaging and alienating, but I’m not sure exactly how letting people decide on whether their life depends on having almond milk in their coffee or not helps that much when the opportunity to make much bigger, more meaningful choices is not open to them. It’s just an illusion of control, a distraction from bigger problems, and systemic failures that continue to pile up around us.

For those in the middle, the choice is seemingly widest, because they may be allowed to aspire to the “higher quality” choices on offer, and may even have access to some of them if they stretch, but that may also mean they have to settle for less elsewhere for some reason. For instance, you might mostly shop at Sainsburys, but the Aldi and Lidl middle aisle offers throw up some gems, and there also a few things that Waitrose does that you really like. All of those choices are available to you. It may seem, on the face of it, positive, but the tightrope choice walk is mentally taxing, and constant. Would you miss not having them all? Really? That dangling of the aspiration carrot (and the fear of failure) is the trick that pushes the middle layer on, and encourages it to engage with a process that it so damaging to them, as well as almost everyone else.

Others have more limited scope, or hardly any choice at all. Life is less fun if you’re scrabbling around the own brand aisles looking for bargains, or even having to cut costs further and rely on a food bank (3). Your choices are constrained by any number of factors outside of your control, and they’re sometimes social, or cultural too. One particular example of this is in the area of education. For those who’ve had children about to start primary or secondary schools, many parents will have gone through the experience of trying to find school places for their children. It’s a minefield because there’s the worry about whether you’ll find a “good” school for your kids. After all, what parent wants to condemn their child to a “bad” school, which might harm their future opportunities(4)? Again though, the system was designed to favour the wealthiest: the mostly urban classes who could happily select the best options, safe in the knowledge that their darling scions would get access to them. Guess who that disadvantages most of all? Why yes, surprise, surprise, the poorest! Because they get no choice at all, and are forced to settle for the worst options (5). But again, the biggest group are caught between necessity and aspiration, and have to contend with managing the choices rained down upon them to either keep up with the most privileged, or sink with rhe rest. So there’s a whole culture now about eyeing league tables, pushy parents in PTA meetings, and the empty manoeuvrings of micro-signalling subtle differences in status to confer an advantage to your darling progeny in some way. Because if they don’t go to the right schools, they won’t get into the right universities, and if they don’t go to the right universities they won’t get a good job. But again, the wealthiest are shielded, because the “best” schools dominate entrance to the top universities, because the system is designed for them to do just that. The deck is stacked. You stick your sprog’s name on the Eton waiting list, and Oxford and the Cabinet is only a lumbering (re)shuffle away.

On the other hand, you might consider being a parent in Finland (6). You send your child to the most convenient local school, because you know the local school is good. There’s little jockeying for rank or status. Those who do have the ability to educate their children other ways (either by home schooling or sending them to overseas schools) would probably have done that whatever system they were in. You spend less time agonising over the choice and its consequences, your child goes to a good school, and it all generally works out. It’s so much less stressful, and here not having a overwhelming menu of choice doesn’t really matter, because all the options are pretty much as good as each other.

But let’s go back to the idea that more choices always means better. Let’s think about televison and broadcasting generally. I grew up in the 1970s and 80s. There were 3 or 4 television channels for most people. There were a handful of national radio stations, and a small assortment of local alternatives (7). On the face of it, having such little choice is obviously bad, but is the explosion of choice we’ve seen in the digital age entirely good? Yes there are more outlets, more channels, more stuff, but the conundrum of what to watch is all too common now, with watchlists of stuff you want to see, but may never get chance to, piling up. And lots of those newer outlets are recycling huge amounts of old stuff anyway. In a recent conversation, I got involved in a discussion about how certain types of show don’t seem to get made much any more. The specific example was Parkinson. And it’s true, there’s nothing really like it now, with the mix of the old, young, silly, cerebral, trivial, and serious. One would think if there’s demand for such a show, it would be made. But there is one, because choice is not entirely predicated upon demand, but on what producers, controllers and commissioners think the demand is. They make guesses about audience taste, and those guesses are not always flattering. In the words of Paul Weller, “The public wants what the public gets” (8), itself just in microcosm Chomsky’s description of manufactured consent, where people’s wants and opinions are manipulated in various ways by external sources, such as the media. Even the torrent of choice is not an entirely free one: your choices are controlled.

Choice is not just an individual decision. Increasingly in Western-type societies we live in an individualised and solipsistic environment, which encourages us to fixate on our own wants, our own desires, at the expense of collective welfare. And when the needs of the many are important we are found increasingly unable to resolve the tension that exists between the many and the individual. Right now, it should be fairly straightforward for most people to wear a face covering pretty much anywhere they come into contact with others. It’s not just about personal choice and freedom, it’s also about our responsibility to others. But the paralysing mantra of choice blinds some to that. For them, their own almost pathological need to exercise this personal choice at almost any cost far outweighs the need for collective vigilance and consideration. Choices come with responsibilities, and increased choice also carries more numerous and possibly onerous obligations, but many do not want to have to deal with that problem.

The wealthiest restrict their choices, (ironically enough) by choice. They can choose to disregard whole swathes of the choice on offer, so they are actually immune to most of its debilitating effects. Those who can afford to take part in markets can afford to exercise choice, and the markets don’t really care if you can’t, because in the purest form (the form the neo-liberals supposedly cleave to, unless it affects them personally, like bailing out the banks), the market has no ethical or moral dimension. Most people however, can’t afford to opt-out of the torrent of choices presented to them. They can’t float above the morass of options presented to them as the most privileged can, and end up fighting against it all like a white water rafter, paddling a kayak against the constant boiling turbulent flow of stuff they need to continually select and manage. At the bottom, it’s just as bad or worse, because although you can’t actually participate in it, this whole system is dangled before you like a big juicy carrot (9), and you’re told constantly by those same people that the reason you can’t participate is not that the system is rigged against you, but that you are somehow to blame. You can’t have those choices because you’re idle, or feckless, or inferior, and some pre-ordained hierarchy places them at the top because they deserve to be. And their concept of improveming you lot, “social mobility”, is just another way of saying that if you play the game, a few more of you can be just like them. It’s all a lie of course, but the lie is forever being sustained, because to admit the lie is to risk damaging the system that keeps the privileged in that position, and you where you are.

So for those except the most privileged, the profileration of choice is actually quite unhealthy, and it’s probably not a coincidence that, in the increasingly consumerist societies, signs of worsening mental health are more common. It may be one reason why people are dissociating themselves in numerous ways from the mainstream, and abdicating decision-making and rationalism to increasingly marginal sources. The 5G tinfoil hat brigade finds its genesis not just in the breakdown of trust in institutions (though that is a part of it), but in the proliferation of choice that taxes the critical faculties so much that it’s easier to make the decision to selectively switch those faculties off to prevent overload or burnout. We are deluged with choices in things that are trivial and unimportant in so many ways, distracting us from the fact that many important choices are not within our reach at all, or we are being actively restrained from making some of them.

There are no easy solutions. Many will cling to their trivial choices, and will not surrender them because of some abstract notion of freedom, forgetting that in the end we are all connected, and all dependent upon each other. Without that realisation in our heads, none of anything we do makes all that much sense, and no amount of choice of coffee you can drink can make up for the damage to the psyche its absence wreaks.

(1) The author of Dilbert, Scott Adams, talked about this several years ago when describing confusopolies, which are markets designed to make reasoned choices more difficult to make because of the maze of confusing and obscure options for buyers.

(2) With apologies to the late Douglas Adams.

(3) Food banks are splendid things and do a lot of good work, but it is frankly obscene that one of the world’s supposedly richest nations should need to have them at all.

(4) Dog whistle moment there. There’s a whole morass of class-based angst and soul-searching to be had in thinking about “Which school did you go to?” as an opening gambit in conversation, and it starts there. Of course, the whole notion of what makes a “good” school is a hugely loaded one, and we don’t have time to pursue it here.

(5) Especially when that option is currently being squeezed financially by the very people who have the greatest power to exercise their choice.

(6) https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/09/10-reasons-why-finlands-education-system-is-the-best-in-the-world

(7) Specifically, where I lived in Middlesbrough, growing up, We had:

  • TV: BBC1; BBC2; ITV (Tyne Tees); Channel 4 from November 1982. Channel 5 didn’t arrive until 1997, and satellite TV wasn’t around until I’d gone to university, so I disregard that.
  • Radio: Radio 1–4, then later 5/5Live; BBC Local Radio (Cleveland or Newcastle); Radio Tees/TFM; Metro (Newcastle) if you were lucky. These were the FM stations, there were other things kicking around the medium and long waves like Atlantic or Luxembourg, but they were certainly niche interests.

(8) Going Undergound, by The Jam.

(9) Organically farm-grown, of course

The Cult of Stupid

No, I distinctly said, “CULT”

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