15 March 2010

Too Many Choices

Sheena Iyengar is a psychologist who studies choices. The market says more is always better, but it turns out, as reported in The Chronicle today, that having too many options leaves people overwhelmed and even paralyzed.

Reading the article made me remember returning to the free-market world after spending a year in China back in the late 1980s. Food was completely local and seasonal. I remember tomatoes, chili peppers, scallions, bok choy, tofu, and fish and chicken.

You bought both live, because the alternative was to buy stuff that had been sitting out on slabs of plywood for who knows how long. I killed the fish myself; I got the sellers to kill the chickens. (I ate meat while living there, because I worried about getting enough nutrition with fairly limited food choices, but reverted to vegetarian as soon as I returned home.)

There were little stores that sold canned goods, but those varied with time, too, except that as I recall, sardines packed in tomato sauce were always available.

The Mate and I took a train from Shanghai to Berlin, and then got the Trans-Siberian Express across Mongolia, Siberia, and the Urals. In Moscow, we took the subway under the city and got on another train across Poland, into East Germany, and across the border into West Berlin.

And after eight days in transit, we went into a supermarket. I can't remember if it was the chocolate aisle, the cereal aisle, or the toothpaste aisle that caused me to break down, sobbing. I do know that I was utterly overwhelmed by the number of different brands and varieties.

I suppose we learn to cope with excessive options by ignoring most of them. I don't spend much time in the cereal or toothpaste aisles these days, just scan for the kind I want and move on. I generally ignore the chocolate display altogether.

I have trouble with books, though. I wander into The Strand, or the huge Barnes & Noble on Union Squre, and often find myself completely paralyzed, unable to choose anything to read. (And forget about Amazon.) I do better in a nice little neighborhood bookstore -- where the choices are limited.