The Age of Options

You’ve got a lot of choices to make — so choose already!

Age of Options

Remember when there were only three TV networks?

For most of my younger life, if I wanted to watch television, I had the meager choice of CBS, NBC or ABC, which until the early 1990s were America’s only commercial TV networks. For much of the viewing public back then, the really, really big decision was The Ed Sullivan Show vs. Bonanza

That ’60s Sunday night squareoff is a good starting point for wrapping our heads around the brain-frazzling increase in the number of viewing options between then and now. Unlike typical viewers from 60 years ago, today’s couch potato can surf over 225 cable channels — without having to leave an easy chair to change the station or adjust the rabbit-ears antenna — or scroll through what seems like an endless inventory of Netflix shows and movies. 

How many evenings have we spent about as much time flipping for something to watch as we could have spent watching it if we’d only been able to decide what to watch to begin with? (C’mon, I can’t be the only one.)

The limited video options of my youth are absolutely unimaginable to many of today’s young people, as are human existence before the Internet, YouTube and so many other taken-for-granted perks of quotidian, contemporary life. When I recently attempted to impart to my teenage son some appreciation of the technological prosperity that he enjoys, he paused his incessant video-gobbling for one nanosecond, lifted his eyes from his phone and gave me that look that could only mean “… and so?” 

And so… today’s eye-boggling abundance of viewing options is just one example of the — let’s just say it — ridiculous volume of choices that complicate every sphere of our lives. Whether buying a computer or a mattress, making a music selection or a life-changing medical decision, or swiping left or right on an online dating site, we are compelled to choose, choose, choose — and hurry up about it!  

You want to buy a car? You may have over 1,700 models to choose from. Just got to upgrade that smartphone? You can pick from over 24,000 different devices — and those are only the Android models. Searching for a career-change? One website lists 12,000 job titles and descriptions. Need health insurance? There are 40 companies — and selecting the right plan could be the most confounding of all consumer choices. (If you’ve survived the ordeal of applying for Medicare, you know what I mean.)

And then there’s the supermarket, perhaps the one place that most of us frequent most consistently. As late as the 1990s, there were about 7,000 items in a grocery store, according to Michael Ruhlman, author of Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America

Today that number has skyrocketed.

At Publix, for example, the average number of products is about 50,000, says Nicole Krauss, a company media manager. 

 On a typical shopping trip, you might be confronted with a couple hundred different salad dressings, just as many soups and maybe 300 varieties of cookies. And don’t even mention cereal. Do you want your breakfast bowl filled with oats, rice, wheat or combinations of all three? Cheerios, Wheaties, Raisin Bran? Fruit Loops, Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs? With or without fruit and nuts in the package? With or without a surprise? Then again, maybe you’ll just have granola. 

A recent stroll down the toothpaste aisle divulged an embarrassment of choices that actually made my teeth hurt: Gum Detoxify, Rapid Relief, Glamorous White, Daily Protection, Fresh Breath, Complete Protection, Extra Fresh Repair & Protect, Extreme Clean, Tartar Protection, Cavity Protection, With Scope, Baking Soda and Peroxide, Deep Clean, Pro Health, Pro Health Advanced, 3D White, Optic White, True White, Intensive Enamel Repair, Max Fresh Breath Strips, Triple Action, Sparkling White, Brilliance and, of course, Sensitive. And again … that’s toothpaste!

Those of us who’ve been alive long enough to remember how things used to be — back when it was basically Crest, Colgate and Pepsodent — would surely be amazed at the staggering number of choices we have today. That is, if we ever stopped to think about it. Many of us, young and old, share a blase obliviousness to what is now just an accepted part of life.

But is so much choice too much of a good thing? Maybe so. 

 As early as 1970, the words “overchoice” or “choice overload” entered the lexicon. Introduced by Alvin Toffler in his book, Future Shock, the terms describe what happens when a lot of options make it more difficult to make a decision, overwhelming people with potential outcomes and risks of making the wrong choice. 

“So much choice produces paralysis, not liberation,” says psychologist Barry Schwartz in a TED talk. “With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all. And even if we 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.”

One reason for that is if you make a purchase that you’re not happy with, with so many choices available, it becomes easy to imagine a different choice that would have been better. 

“And what happens is,” Schwartz says, “this imagined alternative induces you to regret the decision you made, and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of the decision you made — even if it was a good decision. The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose.” 

Today, we call that FOMO. (Fear of missing out.) 

Hmm. If we put our minds to it, I guess we still have the choice to be satisfied with our choices, even if they fall short of our expectations. And we can always take comfort in the thought that freedom of choice is a whole lot better than having no choice at all. 

Either way — and I’ll choose my words carefully here — it still seems like we all have way more choices than we really need. I mean, we seemed to do OK back when we had a whole lot fewer of them, back when life sure seemed so much simpler and saner, back when the big decision we had to make was whether to spend Sunday night in the Ed Sullivan Theater or out on the Ponderosa.