Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Freedom of choice, freedom from choice

Remember that Devo song “Freedom of Choice” ? Especially this lyric:

Freedom of choice is what you got/Freedom from choice is what you want

Turns out they were right. From today’s NYT, a column about scientific findings showing that people actually prefer to have fewer choices. There’s one study comparing French and American parents who have had to withdraw life support from their infants. The French parents were far less conflicted and unhappy about the event afterward, the study finds. In France, doctors make that call, unless challenged by parents. In the US, parents make the call. The responsibility for having had to make such a wrenching choice made them miserable in its aftermath. Excerpt:


Since, fortunately, most of our decisions are less weighty, one way to tackle the choice problem is to become more comfortable with the idea of “good enough,” said Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and author of “The Paradox of Choice” (Ecco, 2003).
Seeking the perfect choice, even in big decisions like colleges, “is a recipe for misery,” Professor Schwartz said.
This concept may even extend to, yes, marriage. Lori Gottlieb is the author of “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” (Dutton Adult, 2010). Too many women — her book focused on women — “think I have to pick just the right one. Instead of wondering, ‘Am I happy?’ they wonder, ‘Is this the best I can do?’ ”
And even though we now have the capacity, via the Internet, to research choices endlessly, it doesn’t mean we should. When looking, for example, for a new camera or a hotel, Professor Schwartz said, limit yourself to three Web sites. As Mr. Scheibehenne said: “It is not clear that more choice gives you more freedom. It could decrease our freedom if we spend so much time trying to make choices.”


This makes sense to me, from my own experience. Every time I’m in a new city, or a familiar city with a wide range of choices for dining, I torture myself trying to decide where to eat. I am nearly paralyzed by the fear that I’m going to make the wrong choice, and miss out on something terrific and special. It’s usually the case that after I decide, I find fault with the lunch I’ve had, because I think I would have been much happier had I chosen to go one of those other places. It’s stupid, I know, but I fall into this trap every time. I remember one day walking around Paris, and being so paralyzed by choice — and with the stakes so high in that fantastic food capital — that it had gotten to be mid-afternoon, and I still hadn’t settled on a place for lunch. So I just bought a demi-baguette and was happy, or at least content. For me, it was less stressful to have plain bread for lunch rather than risk making a decision I regretted.

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posted February 27, 2010 at 9:08 am

Interesting. Years ago in advertising, there was a theory about “the absolute good”. Meaning that customers rarely try to choose the Best of the Best or believe claims about such products; they tend to buy something they believe is Just Good and leave it that. Same with coupons – they almost never change buying patterns.
This same phenom is what I find amusing about commercials for Microsoft’s Bing search engine. We’re overloaded with choices and can find it hard to make decisions.
It may have been you who remarked in a different thread that we can sometimes get so caught up in the comparison game, weighing this against that, what can I have here v. there that we forget to ask “What is the wise thing to do?”

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posted February 27, 2010 at 9:35 am

When it comes to everyday matters, I like to split the difference. By choice, I shop in a fairly small local supermarket where I can find everything I want very easily. I also patronize small local toy, hardware and book stores. Alas, our local stationery store closed, driving me into the embrace of Staples. When it comes to the internet, I love the ability to find exactly the book, food, or item of clothing I want, and it is worth the shipping cost to have that choice, without having to drive around, or shop in stores larger than the nation of Luxembourg. I guess I have the best of both worlds — living in a village with small local shops, but having access to the internet.
Where the more serious matters of life are concerned, I can certainly understand why people want less choice at times. I am an only child, and had to make a lot of end-of-life decisions for my parents. I never felt so alone in the world. On the plus side, people tell me that I was spared the terrible fights that some families have at such times. I was very glad to have medical and religious advisors to give me loving and clear guidance.

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posted February 27, 2010 at 10:04 am

Choice is great when distinctions are clear. For example the choice between chopped liver or a salad. But where it gets frustrating when the choices are between indistinguishable shades of gray. The phrase analysis paralysis was coined because it is such a common problem.
When I find myself in this trap I often toss a coin to break the mental log jam. But with consumer electronics this technique doesn’t work. Because while all the devices seem the same on the surface, their innards and reliablity vary wildly in ways that can be determined by casual inspection.

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posted February 27, 2010 at 10:07 am

Grrr. The last phrase should be “can not be determined by casual inspection”

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posted February 27, 2010 at 11:05 am

When I shop, I generally know what I’m going to the store to buy. I walk briskly from one favorite store to another, examine the available items for price, size and color, try them on and see how they look and feel, and then make a selection inside half an hour. This drives my mother nuts. She likes to browse endlessly and various items catch her eye that she hadn’t planned on looking at but will “take just one little peak” at, etc. Her shopping method seems to give her pleasure. Mine gets me in and out of the shopping mall quickly, which gives me pleasure. I find that I don’t need an endless number of choies when the first three are usually perfectly adequate for my purposes.

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posted February 27, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Do you think that your choice of traditionalism is related to your aversion to unlimited choice? Put way too crudely, traditionalism limits the choices you need to make in your life. BTW, I have a great deal of sympathy for this propensity, I feel paralyzed by large department stores and have been trying to choose a new cell phone for months.

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Jesse Cone

posted February 27, 2010 at 2:23 pm

This is one of the central insights of psychologist Erich Fromm, who wrote such works like “Escape from Freedom”.
This is one of the reasons that I chuckle when my peers fall into the trend of “rebelling” against authority and institutions. And when they get upset when one embraces the virtue of obedience. It’s not that the obedient person has more freedom than the trendy anarchist, its simply that his limitations are meaningful and virtuous.
Limitless freedom is formlessness and the Void, in which there is no meaning. A life of meaning is a life of determinateness.

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posted February 27, 2010 at 8:21 pm

I try not to dwell on decisions at all. Keep it simple.
For example, I LIKED that the Army assigned me a Primary Care Doctor, and scheduled my appointments with whoever was available, inside and outside the system. There wasn’t any choice in your filling type – mercury amalgam was what they had. Glasses were free – if you got military glasses. You had your choice of 13 frames. (Most were pretty nice, too.)
When I wanted to rent a house, I looked at about ten on Craigslist, and physically visited three of them. That’s it.
One of my pet peeves is the VAST number of choices in places like Walmart. The toothpaste aisle, for instance, is just ridiculous. I just by AIM. It comes in about TWO varieties, thank you very much. 😉
When I do have to make a choice I can definitely get caught in the weeds and spend WAY too much time and energy researching it.

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posted February 27, 2010 at 9:21 pm

On the other hand, with 3 billion members of the opposite sex on the planet, I went through a rigorous selection process and am very happy with my choice.

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posted February 27, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Rod… psst… close your bold tag – your causing all the posts below this one to appear in bold on the homepage.

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posted February 28, 2010 at 9:39 am

The mantra of “choice” plays a pretty large role in policy debates, and it’s the favorite term of various business lobbies, including especially health insurance companies, awful unhealthy food companies, etc. Like your opening example, and the commenter above, I don’t so much want choice in health care as I want access to a system I trust. Same in education – I only want choice if I don’t have faith in my local public school.

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John E. - Agn Stoic

posted February 28, 2010 at 10:16 am

I like having a lot of choices – keeps life interesting.

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posted February 28, 2010 at 10:37 am

With all due respect, I think one’s attitude toward how much choice is desirable is more a matter of brain chemicals than anything else. I was raised with one box of cornflakes or Cheerios on the breakfast table. Recently I learned from my son the joy of having several different kinds and actually mixing your own according to the whim of the day. It makes breakfast so much more fun. Or I could eat my oatmeal . . . but then, you can put Greek yogurt, regular yogurt, or cottage cheese on it . . . and you could add some apples . . . or bananas . . . or raisins . . . . I don’t think anyone who is really a foodie at heart can be truly choice-o-phobic, Rod! Isn’t that the joy of being a foodie–the infinite diversity in infinite combinations, as Spock would say? In fact, I think I’d have to argue that it’s more God-like to rejoice in many choices. If God doesn’t like variety, how do you explain beetles?!

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Dan Berger

posted February 28, 2010 at 1:05 pm

@ sigliaris,
To me Rod’s point was that too much choice leaves us unhappy: regrets afterward, or worse, wasted time and paralysis during the search process.
My solution to Rod’s restaurant problem: in a new city, I often pick the first place that looks OK, unless I’m in the mood fora specific type of food. And then I remember it fondly if it was good at all, not worrying about where it may have fallen flat. Not every meal needs to be a gastronomic supernova.
But then, I’m so type B that I drive my wife bonkers.

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Tony D.

posted February 28, 2010 at 4:10 pm

Devo were right about everything…and I can smugly say I knew at the time that they were right!

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posted February 28, 2010 at 8:21 pm
Some days I can’t get started
Wondering which shoe to put on first
Or should I brush my teeth
Before or after I put on my shirt
So many big decisions
Boiled or scrambled, fried or even raw
I’m so damn open-minded
Used to think I’m lucky but I’m cursed
I hate this supermarket
But I have to say it makes me think
A hundred mineral waters
It’s fun to guess which ones are safe to drink
Two hundred brands of cookies
87 kinds of chocolate chip
They say that choice is freedom
I’m so free it drives me to the brink
And you know why – it’s all too much
It’s all too much for me to bear
What kind of shampoo suits my hair
It’s all too much to struggle thru
Especially without you
Won’t you please come home
Honey please come home
I read the morning paper
But it all changes by the evening news
The world got so much smaller
I don’t know which piece of it to choose
I’d like to fight apartheid
Wish that I could fight the guy upstairs
I’d solve a dozen cases
If only there weren’t so many clues
What shall we do this evening
Send out for some sushi and champagne
Stay in and watch TV
50 channels can’t all be the same
Maybe go to a movie
50 films on 50 tiny screens
They say that choice is freedom
I’m so free it’s driving me insane
And you know why – it’s all too much
It’s all too much for me to stand
So much supply and no demand
There’s just too much for me to do
Especially without you
Won’t you please come home
Honey please come home
I’d like to get to know
All the many people I could be
If I just had the time
I’m sure I could find out which one is me
Maybe I need religion
Or meditation ’til I disappear
They say that choice is freedom
I’m so free I’m stuck in therapy
And you know why – it’s all too much
It’s all too much for me to take
Try to be real, feel like a fake
It’s all too much to follow thru
Especially without you
Honey please come home
Won’t you please come home

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posted March 1, 2010 at 5:15 am

If you take away freedom of choice, you take away the punishment for the wrong decisions. That angst, that KNOWING you will be responsible, is what teaches us to weigh, believe, and think carefully BEFORE we act. Doing away with this, is to diminish our moral compass, our moral muscles, delegating morality to someone else to exercise for us.
NOBODY should ever be comfortable after having made such a decision. NOBODY. It should haunt us the rest of our lives. That’s what makes us gain a conscience and a tuned heart to right and wrong.

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Dan Berger

posted March 1, 2010 at 8:40 am

Fer Pete’s sake, YHM, we’re not talking about deciding whom to save from a burning building. We’re talking about what restaurant to patronize, or where to buy a pair of socks.
Frankly, I can do without such a decision haunting me the rest of my life.

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Scott Walker

posted March 1, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Rod, you approach restaurant choices like my wife approaches the radio when we’re on the road. She is constantly going from station to station listening for the perfect road song, even though she knows the perfect road song is Lynyrd Skynyrd’s cover of “Call Me The Breeze,” which, sadly, doesn’t get nearly as much play as “Free Bird.” So I say to you what I say to her: Pick one, dammit! Unless it’s Zager and Evans doing “In The Year 2525,” it’ll be good enough for government work and over soon anyway.
Life offers us so many difficult decisions as it is. Why agonize over radio? Or even food?
Just the same, if you’re ever in the Pacific NW, I’ll be happy to serve as your Michelin Guide.

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nice folding knives

posted July 26, 2010 at 5:08 am

Thank you for share.I like this article very much.Also here to recommend you with nice home hardware and garden tools for your various choices.Your suggestion are highly welcomed.

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