The ‘American Dream’: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In the U.S., to a large extent, we are free to choose. For the most part, this makes us happy. It feels like freedom. For example, the options that we have in life, such as which career to pursue, where to vacation, which car to buy, and even the numerous ways in which we might choose to dress our salad can be seemingly endless. The options for my salad dressing are astounding. There is a sixty-foot aisle full of condiments in the supermarket near my home, from which to choose. This seems like a great deal of opportunity that would lead to enhanced wellbeing. Yet, I have discovered that this endless array of choice is not always better.
The idea that more choice is not necessarily better became abundantly clear to me when my husband purchased for me a new cell-phone. It was one of those smart phones. He told me that I should decide what sort of protective cover I would like and purchase one. So, I went on-line shopping. What I found was truly amazing. There were literally hundreds of choices. The choices were so many that I decided that on-line shopping was not going to serve me well. I needed to see the choices in person: To feel them, to try them on, to see how protective they really would be for my new device. Unfortunately, I discovered that it was necessary for me to drive to a store that was nearly an hour away in order to do so. Therefore, I took my new phone to work with me, intending to shop for the cover when my workday was through. Yet, I did not even get into work before my phone was knocked out of my hand and flew across the parking lot. The repair, I discovered, would cost almost as much as a new phone. I was sad about my loss.
Today, in retrospect, I can see that it was the very wide range of choice in cell phone protection that made it almost impossible for me to choose a suitable cover. I wanted ‘the best’ cover that I could get, in order to ‘protect my investment’ and this is what caused the purchase delay. Many people have an assumption that the more choices one has, the better off one is. That theory proved to be untrue for me that day!
Therefore, I was not surprised to learn that social scientists have discovered that greater choice does not necessarily translate to better wellbeing. For example, Psychologist, Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice (2004) argued that although a certain degree of autonomy and freedom of choice are important to one’s wellbeing, paradoxically, too much choice creates anxiety for people (Schwartz, n.d.). He has cited psychologists David G. Myers of Hope College and Robert E. Lane of Yale University, writing “increased choice and increased affluence have, in fact, been accompanied by decreased well-being” and that there are findings that “indicate that the explosion of choice plays an important role” in this phenomenon (Schwartz, n.d.). Too many choices then, can be a disadvantage.
The disadvantage of choice can be explained in that sometimes too many choices lead some folks to encounter difficulty in choosing between the many options available. Schwartz named two types of choosers, and he called them the “maximizers” and the “satisficers”. Maximizers are the sorts of folks who like to make the best choice possible from amongst all the options available. While by comparison, satisficers are satisfied with a choice that is “good enough” regardless of other, perhaps, ‘better’ choices (Schwartz, n.d.). It is clear to me today, that in the case of shopping for my cell phone cover, I was a maximizer, as I was determined to choose the very best protection for my new device. Yet it was the quest for the best that led to my difficulty in choosing, and my subsequent loss.
Therefore, my search to find the best cover did not provide me with benefit. Instead my delay in choosing caused the loss of my gift. There are other types of loss that maximizers may also encounter. What Schwartz and his colleagues discovered through their research is that maximizers expend a great deal of energy in their decision-making process and because of this they are more “likely to make better objective choices” but, in comparison to satificers, they also get less satisfaction from the decisions that they make (Schwartz, n.d.). I surely did experience less satisfaction, as I was disappointed because of the loss of the gift, and the financial loss if I would have chosen to repair it (which I chose not to do). Yet, I was sorry, too, about the time that both my husband and I extended in researching the purchase, and the time spent thinking about the many new features this phone would provide to me. Therefore, my loss also included the loss of features that I anticipated being able to enjoy. Surprisingly, less satisfaction also comes from thinking about what could have been.
Indeed, this lesser degree of satisfaction derived from ‘best’ choices can be explained by understanding the way in which maximizers think about the ‘costs’ involved in their decision process. Choices involve comparisons, and when a choice is made, the opportunity of choosing other options no longer exists. This leaves the chooser to wonder if a different choice might have, in fact, been better. Additionally, when one has high expectations, as is the case for maximizers, the idea of lost opportunities can lead to a feeling of regret. So, too, the time spent in decision-making adds to the costs of the choosing. Schwartz cited the work of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky writing that losses, such as opportunity costs, have a greater psychological impact than that of gains (Schwartz, n.d.). In other words, he wrote “losses make us hurt more than gains make us feel good (Schwartz, n.d.).” When a great deal of time and energy is invested in decision-making, the costs involved in choosing ‘the best’ may result in less satisfaction overall, and this can lead to feelings of depression. This explains how objectively determined ‘best choices’ can lead to less overall satisfaction. Schwartz named this phenomenon “the tyranny of choice” (Schwartz, n.d.).
However, choice is not the only sort of paradoxical tyranny, what at first seems to be counterintuitive is the fact that we may also experience a ‘tyranny of freedom’ (Schwartz, 2000). The tyranny of freedom can be understood in the context of our individual autonomy or what we may think of as self-determination. Schwartz has questioned the notion of self-determination asking, does it mean “determination by the self, or determination of the self, or both? (Schwartz, 2000).” This is an interesting question to consider.
Consider, then, that determination by the self would simply mean self-determined choice, or unlimited freedom to choose. Whereas determination of the self would mean choosing what sort of self one would like to be. For example, before my phone loss, the self I chose to be was a maximizer, because my objectifiably best purchase choice was determined by me. Today, I have reinvented myself, to be perhaps more of a satisficer, much more willing to choose what is good enough to serve my purpose without the need to choose ‘the best’. In this way, I have determined what sort of self I wish to be. The determination of what sort of ‘self’ I wish to be, therefore, limits my determined-by-the-self choices.
Why did I change the sort of self that I wished to be? I changed because I realized that the “unconstrained freedom” that I had in choosing a cell phone cover led to a sort of “paralysis” in my decision-making that become a “kind of self-defeating tyranny (Schwartz, 2000).” I did not choose a suitable protection because I wanted to acquire the best protection instead. Therefore, while I was still attempting to choose, the real choice that I made was a choice for absolutely no protection. This choice was very self-defeating, indeed.
Clearly, the realization of self-defeating choices leads to the understanding that constraints on my freedom to choose would have, most likely, served me better. With fewer choices, I would have had less difficulty in making a decision and would have chosen protection. Therefore, constraints on freedom to choose are not generally understood as positive, but in some circumstances, they very well may be. Perhaps this explains why cultural and social norms and what we think of as morals have developed in society. They act as guides by constraining freedoms in order to better enable members of society to make choices amidst endless possibility.
The notion that it may be better to have limited choices is contrary to what has been lauded for years, the belief in the inherent value of ‘rational choice’ as expressed in rational choice theory. Contrary to the notion that humans make ‘rational choices’, it has been proven that there are many conditions of decision-making that are not entirely dependent upon rational thinking. One of these conditions is culture. According to Schwartz (2000), understanding how humans actually go about choosing “requires knowledge of the cultural institutions that influence their lives.” Furthermore, culture does shape peoples preferences, yet preference can only be understood within a limited context. What this means is that people may be able to intelligibly express preferences among limited choices, but preferences cannot be made concerning all possible choices. Schwartz asserts that it is the dominance of rational choice theory that is embedded into our economic system that influences U.S. culture such that we have erroneously come to believe that greater choice is naturally better for our wellbeing. Yet, new theories concerning how human choices are made are leading us to question the economic theories that we have trusted for generations.
Even though choices have increased for most people over time in the U.S, there is a correlation that incidents of clinical depression have increased too. Schwartz (2000) theorizes that this is perhaps because, with increased choices, people also have high expectations for perfection. Additionally, he notes, U.S. culture has become more individualistic such that people may have an expectation of being able create their version of a perfect life. Thus, unrealistic expectations based on notions of freedom of choice leave people disappointed when they do not obtain perfection. This provides us with provocative evidence that placing limits on individual freedoms might serve us well. Maybe our ancestors understood this as they developed certain morals and cultural and societal norms.
Hence, for the most part, in our individualistic society, our notions of freedom (which are perhaps an outgrowth of our capitalistic economic philosophy), which are sometimes thought of as self-determination or our unlimited ability to choose, are possibly only partially understood. Contrary to what we may assume, we do not necessarily choose among an unending array of free choices, rather we act within a set of societal and cultural norms, what we may think of as acting on our morals. One of the most prevailing morals of our contemporary society is our notion that we should exercise our unlimited freedoms, primarily expressed as our freedom of choice. Yet we may not be fully aware that acting on one set of freedoms may restrict other freedoms. What is overlooked, many times, is that because we are too busy engaging in our freedom of consumer choice that we also have a different sort of freedom. We have the freedom to choose the type person that we wish to be.
To summarize thus far, when we are engaged in determination-by-the-self, that is to say, the freedom to choose from unlimited possibility, we at the same time constrict our ability to engage in determination-of-the-self. Likewise, when we engage in determination-of-the-self, that is to say, deciding the type of person that we wish to be, we limit the possibilities of our ‘free’ choices. For that reason, when we think about our wellbeing, we should consider both of these types of freedoms and how it is that we wish to balance them.
With this understanding of the constraining nature of unlimited free choice, it is conceivable then, to think that if we intentionally limit our free choice possibilities, we can expand our personal wellbeing. This type of limit might be thought of as commitment. Schwartz named teaching this type of commitment, positive psychology, stating that,
a positive psychology will have to be willing to tell people that, say, a good, meaningful, productive human life includes commitment to education, commitment to family and to other social groups, commitment to excellence in one’s activities, commitment to virtues such as honesty, loyalty, courage, and justice in one’s dealings with others, and so on. Notice how the very notion that psychology might articulate a vision of the good life contradicts the emphasis on freedom, autonomy, and choice (2000).
Indeed, self-determined limits to personal choice can sometimes result in outcomes that are truly surprising beyond what one might have imagined.
For example, when faced with decisions about which one is unprepared to make, sometimes the choice decided is the choice of acceptance for what is. This act can transform us in profoundly unimaginable ways. This concept was brought to life in a National Public Radio (NPR) Fresh Air program, hosted by Terry Gross as she interviewed author Andrew Solomon, on the subject of his new book, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (2012). In this broadcast, Solomon spoke about the experiences of parenting “profoundly different children (Parenting, 2012).” He came to the realization that what an important choice it is when familiesdecide to keep, raise and accept children who, because they are so profoundly different from the rest of their family, do not fit social norms.
In this discussion, he spoke of one family in particular who was grateful for the rewarding life experience that resulted from parenting such a profoundly ‘different’ child. He said that Tom and Karen Robards had a child with Down syndrome, and that in order to change the way education services were delivered to people with Downs, they set up the Cooke Center in NYC and spent many years dedicated to that program. Solomon questioned them, asking whether they sometimes wished that they had not had that experience, and that if they could make Downs go away, would they choose to do so? Karen replied that for her son, David, that choice would certainly make his life easier. Yet, speaking for herself, contrary to what she would have imagined thirty years prior, that the experience of having a child with Downs had made her think “so much more deeply and appreciate humanity so much more broadly and live so much more richly” that, she “wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world (Parenting, 2012.).” Therefore, when confronted with the choice between accepting (or not accepting) a child for what the child is, the simple act of acceptance, even when that child is so very different from oneself, can have unimaginable rewards. Therefore, it is clear that in that act of acceptance of others’ differences, we can learn so much more about ourselves and grow, as human beings. What is remarkable is that this growth takes place in such a way that it would otherwise not occur without that acceptance of difference.
Solomon also spoke about parents of children who were conceived that act of rape (Andrew Solomon, 2013). He said that because of the traumatic experience of rape, women will sometimes choose to terminate those pregnancies, and that they should be allowed to make that decision. Yet, he also spoke of mothers who chose to do otherwise. Choice, whichever choice a woman in such a circumstance chooses, empowers a woman to regain agency from a situation in which her rights were taken away.
Solomon also spoke about the children conceived in rape. He said that they were sometimes relieved to discover the circumstance of their conception because it explained a distant and sometimes negative feeling that they received from their mothers. Solomon also spoke of that which I had completely unexpected,
there’s a tendency for people who are in categories that are frequently faced with abortion to describe not being aborted as though it were some wonderful victory that they had achieved by riding at the head of an army on a white horse. And so there’s a resistance to abortion. There’s anti-abortion sentiment in the disability community. There’s anti-abortion sentiment in the rape community (Andrew Solomon, 2013.).
It is painful for people to know that there are those who would advocate creating a society, through the use of medical techniques, in which people like them would no longer exist. Therefore, when we think about ‘our’ choices, it is important to understand that we do not live unto ourselves, and that our choices affect others too.
Solomon’s book is about parents who had children who were profoundly different from themselves or who were likely to be socially stigmatized because they had conditions such as Down syndrome, deafness, dwarfism, Downs syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability, or who were prodigies, or who were conceived in rape, or who became criminals, or who were transgender. Although such life experiences were most certainly challenging, and some might advocate for ‘giving such children up’, Solomon wrote about parents who chose to keep them and raise them. These parents had accepted their children in spite of circumstances that did not fit social norms, and that others might regard as tragic.
Although the circumstances of each of these families were quite different, Solomon sees connections between all of them. Perhaps this is related to his own unique circumstance of being gay. What Solomon was studying is difference. He named this sort of human difference as ‘horizontal identity’ (Andrew Solomon, 2013.). That is, horizontal identity is an identity that is not learned and passed down from generation to generation, but rather because one is so profoundly different from other family members, he or she must learn his or her identity though peers. It was the horizontal identity of the children – that is it was their differences – that connected the families of which Solomon wrote.
Contrary to what Schwartz discovered about social norms then, is the notion that instead of there being decreased wellbeing when we accept and embrace people who identify outside of the boundaries of that which we might consider ‘normal’, we may actually enrich our lives. Schwartz analysis of choice and freedom begs the conclusion that social and cultural norms are beneficial to a society because they assist people by limiting choices, thereby increasing wellbeing. Solomon’s argument contradicts this sentiment in that marginalized and stigmatized people suffer as the consequence of the enforcement of social norms. Therefore, even in a world where, say, medical progress might allow us to have greater access to the choice to ‘eliminate’ differences that we have come to think of as somehow unacceptable because they are ‘abnormal’ or cause us difficulty and pain, we might take time to pause before we choose to do so. Yet, surely we cannot know what is best for another, and therefore we need to allow others to make the decisions that are best for them. Perhaps what we need to consider, is the types of norms that society forms and attempts to enforce. Instead of thinking about different ‘kinds’ of people (identity norms) – after all, we are all different in some way from one another – we might instead think about norms concerning our notions of free choice and limit those for our own wellbeing.
In conclusion, too many choices may be constraining, and likewise too much freedom may be constraining too, and these constraints can limit one’s wellbeing. Therefore, it is reasonable to think that placing limits on one’s freedom and free choice would remove constraints and enhance one’s wellbeing. Nonetheless, choice is very important, because when options are limited, people suffer. To understand this better, it is important to consider what sort of choice one is considering. It seems that determination-by-the-self sometimes limits identity options for oneself and for others, thereby decreasing wellbeing. While on the other hand, determination-of-the-self limits free choice. Neither choice is totally free from limiting consequence. Understanding how these choices work in conjunction with one-another can help us to be they type of person that we wish to be.
Andrew Solomon: Love, No Matter What. (2013). (TED) [Audiovisual Material]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_solomon_love_no_matter_what/transcript#t-82386
Parenting A Child Who’s Fallen ‘Far From the Tree’. (2012). Parenting a child who’s fallen ‘far from the tree’. (Fresh Air) [Radio]. WHYY. Author Interviews. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2012/11/12/164958401/parenting-a-child-whos-fallen-far-from-the-tree
Schwartz, B. (n.d.). The tyranny of choice. Scientific American, (April, 2004), 70-75
Schwartz, B. (2000). Self-determination: The tyranny of freedom. American psychologist, 55(1), 79.
Solomon, A. (2012). Far from the tree: Parents, children and the search for identity. Simon and Schuster.
 Schwartz wrote that he “borrowed the term ‘satisficers’ from the late Nobel Prize–winning psychologist and economist Herbert A. Simon of Carnegie Mellon University (Schwartz, n.d.).
 Rational Choice Theory assumes that people always make rational choices based on “well-ordered preferences” among all possibilities, regardless of myriad influence possibilities, and as if they always have complete information about costs and benefits in order to maximize personal advantage (Schwartz, 2000).
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