Spoiled for choice

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 December, 2003, 12:00am

Industrialised nations have come to expect freedom of choice - in everything from family planning to breakfast cereal. In some ways, having options has come to represent a key gap - a determining feature between the lives of a mainland farmer's daughter and her Hong Kong business-district equivalent, for example. But while some choices deeply affect a person's quality of life, most do not - not even for those in affluent populations who are socio-economically elevated enough to enjoy their full potential.

Historically, most people have had few choices in life, and this is still the case. They are born into a particular setting, say, as a Hindu or Muslim; a member of a class or caste, family or ethnic group. Life is defined by chance, by roles and marked out by participation in collective events and tasks.

Even for the rich, according to the philosophers, 'choicefulness' is largely an illusion. All the most significant influences that shape who we are and what our future 'choices' are likely to be, come about by sheer hazard, such as our genetic inheritance, home and mother tongue.

It is mostly the uncontrollable flow of events that shapes life, asserts John Gray, author of Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. And because this stream has become increasingly unstable, people are driven harder to create the illusion of freedom of choice.

But America, the economic and cultural giant of our day, champions choice (particularly consumer choice) to such a degree that it has come to be identified with freedom itself. Choice has become central to America's individualistic way of life, implying power, autonomy and dignity.

It is undeniable that exercising choice has a liberating kick to it and helps people define themselves. But it is also isolating, especially for choices like a marriage partner, career, education for one's children or elected officials.

Individualist tradition teases these choices apart from the society in which they are set, separating people from their network of relationships and reducing social connectedness.

I once witnessed a good example of how westerners tend to be isolated in their choice-making in Indonesia. In a survey to assess staff performance, westerners sitting together and assessing the same people ticked the boxes in silence. The results covered a broad range. Indonesians conferred on each point, reached consensus, and all the questionnaires came back the same. When asked, westerners interpreted the Indonesian approach as meaningless - almost like a form of 'cheating' and felt that having their individual voice heard was the whole point of the exercise. The Indonesians argued that the opinion of the group was what had been sought, not that of any particular individual.

Studies show that people in both collectivist and individualistic societies are happier when they have some scope for choice. The Indonesian example demonstrates that the question is of degree of volition and the arena in which choice is exercised.

The vast choice of products in US supermarkets can seem emblematic of freedom of choice. But rampant consumerism is not an inevitable symptom of affluence. Many Swiss supermarkets carry only four brands of toothpaste, but the Swiss have far more political choices than Americans. And they place more value on choice directed towards efficiency, the environment, reliability of goods and opportunities to learn and travel.

In their response to choice, some psychologists claim, people can be divided into three groups: those who are unaware or ill-equipped to handle it, those who ignore most of the choices to save time, and those who investigate all choices thoroughly before making decisions. Of the three, the second group is typically the best off. The first group suffers because they do not enjoy possible benefits. The third spends a lot of time and effort on their choices and tend to ruminate over them afterwards.

This sort of ruminating 'victim of choice' was featured recently in the Asian Wall Street Journal. A lengthy article was devoted to a journalist's tribulations in pursuit of an ever-better hotel room. Complaining, inspecting alternative rooms and moving from one to another regularly eats up her valuable holiday time, she admitted. But she is possessed by the drive to get the best for her money - even on her honeymoon. Presumably this implies a like-minded readership.

If so, it seems that the process of consumer choice itself has become a worryingly potent mode of expression among the world's moneyed classes.

Jean Nicol is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and writer everydaypsychologist@yahoo.com