Automobile dealer: Larger engine? Turbocharged engine? Automatic or five-speed? Power steering? Anti-lock brakes? Automatic level control? Outside mirrors? Rear window defroster? Rear window wiper-washer? Heated windshield? Power seats? Adjustable steering wheel? Air conditioning? Cruise control? Theft deterrent? Trip computer? Power windows? Courtesy lights? Sunroof? Central locking system? Body trim? Bumper protection? Fancy wheel covers? After market rustproofing? Service contract? . . .
Cereal shelves: All-Bran. Rice Bran. Raisin Bran. Cracklin' Oat Bran. Common Sense Oat Bran. Fruitful Bran. Bran Flakes. Raisin Nut Bran. Quaker Oat Bran. Shredded Wheat With Oat Bran. 100% Bran. Crunchy Corn Bran. Crunchy Rice Bran. Multi-Bran Chex. Oat Bran Option . . .
Magazine rack: Modern Bride, Modern Drummer, Modern Electronics, Modern Maturity, Modern Office Technology, Modern Romances, Modern Secretary, Modern Tire Dealer, Modern Woodmen . . .
Voting booth: Governor. Lieutenant governor. U.S. senator. U.S. representative. State senator. State representative. County commissioner. Recorder of deeds. Coroner. Clerk of courts. Prothonotary. Register of wills. Sheriff. Borough Council. Shall the Constitution be amended to permit . . .
Right off, you must make a choice. Read this or not? There are plenty of other good articles in today's paper; there are plenty of other newspapers; also at your newsstand there are hundreds of magazines, and they have some good articles, too. Then there are books, television programs, videos . . .
There are so many choices that it can get very frustrating -- and that's what this article is all about.
"We are racing toward 'overchoice' -- the point at which the advantages of diversity and individualization are canceled by the complexity of the . . . decision-making process."
Alvin Toffler "Future Shock," 1970 Life has become a giant smorgasbord of opportunity, a table bulging with more food than anyone could ever eat. True enough, freedom exists only in the presence of choices, but it does not follow that the presence of choices -- especially too many choices -- offers freedom.
Buying an automobile today can be an intimidating experience. There are as many as 25,000 items on the grocery shelves. More than 11,000 different magazines were published in 1990. Opening a checking account can degenerate into a nightmare of indecision. Nowadays, you need a magnifying glass to read the television listings. Charities and do-good groups have unleashed epistolary hailstorm on our mailboxes. Have a Coke -- regular, diet, regular caffeine-free, diet caffeine-free, classic? The voting booth looks like the cockpit of a Boeing 747.
The sheer weight of decisions can give one a headache. Reach for an aspirin? Ibuprofen? Regular? Extra-strength? Capsules? Tablets? Caplets? We can become as indecisive as a mosquito in a nudist camp. It's enough to drive you to a shrink. But what kind? Psychologist? Psychiatrist? Psychoanalyst?
Nobody chooses to come into this world, but once we get here, life is a series of choices. The newborn chooses the right or left breast, and the doomed chooses burial or cremation. Choices are the building blocks of our lives, and the big ones -- spouse, career, family -- help us define who we are, what we want and where we are going.
But burgeoning technology and waning tradition have created option overload -- a phenomenon that many psychologists and sociologists believe plays a large role in the general level of stress in American society.
"You can go into a major shopping mall and become totally
emotionally exhausted in one hour and you might have been in only one store buying only one item. The reason is there is such a plethora of items to pick from and so much stimuli in front of you that people have a hard time focusing. . . . People are emotionally stressed and don't know it from the tremendous proliferation of consumer items and the terrific assessments they have to make when they buy a product or service. It's a tremendous emotional burden . . . well beyond the level [of stress] that our parents knew. . . . "
--Jeremy Rifkin, "Time Wars," 1987 The Consumer Federation of America reported last September that most Americans are incompetent in the marketplace; it said most of us don't know that auto insurance rates vary widely, that life insurance becomes less important with age, and that there are many differences among bank accounts. And, of course, that old scapegoat, the public school system, was blamed for failing to teach consumer skills.
But the chief shortcoming of the average American consumer is not education but time. Being a responsible consumer today is a full-time job. When you go to buy a computer and are asked, "Do you want a mono monitor that supports Herc graphics?" you'll need at least the rest of the day to answer.
Option overload is aggravated for consumers who want to be socially responsible. After extensive research, we may conclude that the best gasoline for our car is Exxon, but then what about the Valdez? RCA may manufacture the television that is best for us, but how does it treat its employees? Six weeks of research into computers might lead us to IBM, but what does the company do with its garbage? Other variables that may complicate our choices are politics (does the company do business with South Africa?), the environment (does the product destroy the ozone layer?) and health (does the product contain too much cholesterol?).
"So much quality. So much choice. If anything, you people have too many choices, too much food."
--Georgi Gorgodze, Soviet chef, first visiting an American supermarket, Nov. 2, 1989 It is not recorded precisely where Mr. Gorgodze was moved tmake his observation, but it very well could have been in the cereal aisle. There are upward of 200 choices of cereal in the average supermarket -- a big change from those days when there were maybe a dozen -- Wheaties, Cheerios, Rice Krispies -- and the choice was often dictated by the gift that came in the box. These days there are three kinds of Cheerios.
No people in recorded history have had as much variety of food to choose from as 20th-century Americans, and it gets better -- or worse -- every day. Moreover, very soon the global economy is going to bring in a whole flood of new choices.
David Pittle, technical director of Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, says the magazine's tremendous popularity stems partly from the proliferation of choices in the American marketplace. "We hear over and over again that people have trouble making choices. Technology, in many cases, has gotten way ahead of the consumer."
The magazine first appeared in 1936 and provided its 4,000 readers with a comparison of Grade A milk and Grade B milk; even the most prescient futurist could not have envisioned its role today. Recent issues of Consumer Reports have guided its readers through 42 different bar and liquid soaps (just the best sellers), 11 moving-van lines, 538 health-insurance policies, 35 shower heads, 24 brands of rice, 17 basement paints, 347 mutual funds and eight woks. And, of course, the magazine has rendered its influential judgments on 163 models of new cars and offered frequency-of-repair records on more than 300 used cars.
In addition, for the last 10 years, CR has published Penny Power, which guides children through the perils of the marketplace. Its circulation has reached about 160,000.
Travel agents, interior decorators, caterers and career counselors have long engaged in the business of making choices for us, but there are more of them than ever. A new wrinkle is the personal consultant, a sort of surrogate shopper who makes choices for us, and there are "image consultants" who tell us how to dress for success.
There are agonizing choices wrought by what Science magazine recently called the "Scare of the Week" -- such chemical and technological hazards as Alar in apples, cyanide in grapes, contaminated milk, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, fat, cholesterol, asbestos . . .
One example of how confused we all are was offered by the New England Journal of Medicine: A study showed that 44 percent of the people questioned were prepared to accept a risky treatment for lung cancer if it offered a 68 percent chance of survival. But when the question presented the risks of the same treatment as a 32 percent chance of dying, only 18 percent said they'd undergo such a treatment.
"For millennia . . . children retraced the steps of their parents, were initiated into stable ways and ritualized routines, had a common knowledge and morality, and maintained a basic familiarity with place and family. Today, not only does a child face a radical rupture with the past, but he must also be trained for an unknown future."
--Daniel Bell, sociologist Harvard University, 1968 Two years later, Alvin Toffler warned in "Future Shock" that, in addition to proliferating choices for goods and services, Americans faced a "tempting and terrifying extension of freedom" in lifestyle.
The old social mores have broken down, and religion is on the defensive; there are fewer rites and rituals, fewer do's and don'ts, to help us make decisions. We're on our own. Overchoice is especially difficult for modern women. More than half of all women with children are now in the work force, and for them there is an endless barrage of choices over balancing child-rearing responsibilities, marriage, household duties and career. It produces guilt, self-doubt and stress.
Dr. David A. Goslin, president of the American Institute for Research in Washington, D.C., says that in the previous generation, "a person went to school, got a job, married -- and stayed married for better or worse -- and raised children. A woman's place was in the home, and the home, for the most
part, was not far from the place where one was raised. Widely accepted standards of morality and conduct governed much of our behavior.
"During the last 20 years, much of that has changed. Now we must make real choices: to marry, or not; to stay married, or not; to remarry, or not; to have children, or not; to work, or not; to live near one's family, or not.
"Choices do not make life easier; they make it much mordifficult, for all of us. As social scientists, we know that with an increase in choices, people tend to become more anxious."
Pollster Lou Harris reported in 1986 that despite unprecedented opportunities, stress has become a mass phenomenon in America.
' Despite? Or because of?
"There's small choice in rotten apples."
--William Shakespeare "Romeo and Juliet" Even on ordinary television cable systems, you can get at least 20 stations, and some systems are now offering up to 50 channels. And if you've got a satellite dish, the sky's the limit. A good satellite can dish up 150 to 200 stations, providing more than 1,000 major-league baseball games a year and virtually every professional football game. But before you get all these choices, of course, you've got to decide which system is best for you.
Remote control makes channel-switching rapid-fire, and the videocassette recorder now enables us to view two programs in the same time slot. The multitude of choices on television has led to the practice of "zapping" or "channel-surfing" -- jumping from one program to another, fleeing commercials, tracking two or three sports events at once, seeking exciting images.
Educators believe the nation's literacy problem is rooted in all the flashy attractions and electronic temptations that easily win children's attention away from literary pursuits. Instead of reading, students choose to spend their free time watching television, talking on the telephone, playing video games, listening to music.
Where once Americans looked forward eagerly to the Saturday night movie, they now go to video stores where they can select from thousands of films. Movie marquees are running out of letters and space. Geoffrey Godbey, professor of leisure studies at Penn State, says Americans are being overwhelmed by choices in leisure activities. "Today, a vacation in England has thousands of permutations of how this might be done. As a result of all this, we are making a lot of random choices -- impulse buying, if you will, and this is not resulting in quality leisure time."
"Decision-making in the 1990s will be even more of an art and less of a science than it is today. Not only is the world growing more complex and uncertain at a faster and faster pace, but the old decision-making models are failing, and we can expect their failure to accelerate as well."
--Amitai Etzioni, sociologist George Washington University In 1970, the average American Sunday newspaper had 170 pages; today, that number stands at about 360 -- more than double. Magazines have proliferated, and there's a newsstand in New York's Pan Am Building that has almost 2,500 magazines for sale. Desktop publishing and the photocopier have resulted in newsletters (Garlic Times, Punsters Unlimited, Turtle Express) whose number is beyond counting.
In short, the American in-basket is casting a shadow like Mount McKinley -- a problem that is addressed in a new book, "Information Anxiety," by Richard Saul Wurman. Mr. Wurman notes that the average weekday edition of the New York Times contains more information than the average 17th century Englishman had in a lifetime.
"I believe it is a myth that the more choices you have, the more freedom you will enjoy," Mr. Wurman writes. "Rather, more choices seem to produce more anxiety of having made a wrong choice."
"Being a California voter is like having a part-time job."
--Anonymous, 1990 Nowhere is choice more associated with virtue than in the idea of democracy, and revolutions have been fought to secure the right to choose one's government. But even here, things have gone awry, and in some places, the voting booth is like the cereal aisle of the supermarket.
At a time when citizens of other nations are risking their lives for the right to vote, Americans are staying away from the ballot box in record numbers. About one in every three eligible voters went to the polls in last November's election.
For the best example of how too much choice leads to too little democracy, we have to go to California -- where the voter initiative, once considered the ultimate tool of a democracy (a giant legislature of all citizens making laws), has degenerated into a stupefying nightmare.
Last June, Californians faced 17 initiatives, and less than two weeks before the election, poll takers could not gauge the outcome of most of the proposals because too many voters were totally unaware of them. The proposals included changing the date when chiropractors must pay their state license fees.
The November 1990 ballot had 17 initiatives and constitutional amendments, plus 11 bond-issue proposals. The pamphlet sent to voters to explain the issues ran about 142 pages. Many analysts believe that the sheer complexity of the ballot was a prime reason the voters rejected four major environmental proposals; faced with uncertainty, voters are likely to "just say no."
Last year in Los Angeles, the city held an election for community college trustees, and the turnout was 9 percent. In one precinct, not a single person showed up to vote. This is democracy? Political scientists say one reason for the low turnout in Los Angeles was that there are too many offices being filled by election rather than appointment.
In most of the world, voters are typically asked to make two, three or four choices; these elected officials then fill most of the public offices and make all the legislative decisions. In America, democracy has been trivialized by too many choices.
There is a certain ingratitude to complaining about having too many choices in a world where most people don't have enough. Many of our choices are important and should be cherished and defended at great cost. One of my own most important choices is to write about what I'm interested in.
I chose to write this article somewhere between choosing my long-distance carrier and reading for hours about running shoes so I would choose the right kind; somewhere between choosing to subscribe to Time or Newsweek; somewhere between choosing the vegetable lo mein or the chicken with cashews from the takeout menu; somewhere between choosing an airline for a flight to Florida; somewhere between choosing to deal with the possibilities of Alar in the fruit basket or radon in the basement; somewhere between choosing a candidate in the local race for county coroner . . .
The experts are telling us that Americans are being overwhelmed and paralyzed by the number of choices they must make every day. It seems to me that the answer is for each of us to decide which of the choices really matter -- and then concentrate on these and forget about the others.
Does it really matter where we bank? There may be a difference between MCI and AT&T;, but is it worth caring about? If we dwell on these choices, we run the risk of becoming like Buridan's Ass of philosophical debate: Equally oppressed by hunger and thirst, placed equidistant between a pail of water and a bundle of hay, the animal perished from indecision.
Salvation lies in choosing our choices as well. Then, perhaps, life will be just a bowl of Cheerios . . . Wheaties, Rice Krispies, Grape Nut Flakes, Fruit Loops, Shredded Wheat . . . Life.
WILLIAM ECENBARGER last wrote on the history of the telephone for the magazine.