On a recent visit to my local grocery superstore it hit me. I was standing in an aisle with over thirty types of orange juice and I couldn’t make up my mind about which kind I should buy. Pulp-free or extra-pulp? Added vitamin D plus calcium or anti-oxidant plus? No sugar or low-sugar? Low-acid or heart-healthy and fiber-rich? It didn’t occur to me to ask why there were this many varieties of orange juice.
The reality of an abundance of choices doesn’t just hit me as I stand in the grocery store. It pervades my reality. At the food court in the mall, or in the sporting goods store, or the electronics store, or while on the internet, the abundance of choices overwhelms me and I am paralyzed to choose. Especially during November and December when holiday buying becomes the dominant theme, I find myself numbed by choice. More often than I care to admit, once I do decide, I am less satisfied with what I choose. In the back of my mind swirl all the other options. Did I make the right decision or buy the right gift? The question plagues me and steals all of the joy of having been able to make a choice in the first place.
Author and psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that too many choices often have a negative impact:
“All of this choice has two effects, two negative effects on people. One effect, paradoxically, is that it produces paralysis, rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all. The second effect is that even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from.”(1)
It is not hard to understand that the more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything that is disappointing about the option that you chose. Schwartz suggests that this is because the multiplicity of choices heightens our expectations. When there are not as many options human expectation is mediated. But when there are endless options, our expectations become heightened. The more heightened the expectation the more inevitable the disappointment.(2) Perhaps this is why many travelers to poorer nations are surprised to find so much more happiness and contentment among people who have so little.
I bought my low-acid, high fiber orange juice, but I couldn’t help but be underwhelmed by it. Why? Even though all the varieties of orange juice enabled me to ‘do better’ with regards to tailoring an orange juice to my needs, all of the options elevated my expectations not only about the number of varieties I should be able to choose from, but also how ‘good’ the varieties should be in terms of taste, ingredients used, or in how they were produced. I remember the days when there might have been differing brands of orange juice, but very little difference between them.
This, as Schwartz terms it, is the “paradox of choice.”(3) In Western industrialized nations it is as natural as breathing in air to assume that maximizing the welfare of citizens comes through maximizing individual freedom. The reason for this is both that freedom is in and of itself good, valuable, worthwhile, and essential to being human. If people have freedom, then we can act on our own to do the things that will maximize our welfare, and no one has to decide on our behalf. The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice.
No one would deny that freedom is essential to the flourishing of human societies. But when freedom of choice becomes equivalent to defining ourselves as consumers more than as citizens or as neighbors, what becomes of community and society? And what becomes of our identity as human beings?
These were pressing questions for the earliest Christian communities as they looked toward the one who demonstrated freedom by laying down his life. The apostle Paul raised this issue as he wrote to the Christians at Corinth. In discussing matters of personal freedom he exhorted these early Christians that “all things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his or her own good, but that of his or her neighbor….Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”(4) In his letter to the Galatian Christians, Paul applies the gift of freedom to a sense of corporate responsibility: “You were called to freedom; only do not turn your freedom into and opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”(5)
This definition of freedom for love and service seems to fly in the face of understanding freedom as doing whatever one wants to do, individually. Furthermore, Paul’s understanding calls into question an identity defined by mindless consumption as well. “I choose, therefore I am” is the default of many in the modern world. But for those who seek to follow Paul’s admonition, exercising choice is not simply the unchecked, unthinking, and often self-centered understanding of consumerism that occupies many Western societies and systems. The paradox of choice need not simply be the resultant “buyer’s remorse” or unmet expectations once we have chosen. Instead, the paradox of choice might be in following the one who chose to love and serve others rather than individually pursue options for best for himself. Freedom for choice can be grounded in love for the sake of another.
Perhaps, the aisles of goods and services available to us might prompt this way to choose.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Barry Schwartz, “The Paradox of Choice,” TEDGlobal, July 2005.
(4) I Corinthians 10:23,24, 31.
(5) Galatians 3:13-14.