Google: Iyengar on The Art of Choosing, for a TED talk that challenges our naive belief in free choice. Sheena Iyengar makes a solid research-based case for two erroneous assumptions we often make. One is that we make our own choices, and the other, that more options make for better choices.
She also makes a good case for why we do not need everything that we think we do because many choices are actually between things that are not much different. Indeed, I’ve noticed that the differences we see tend to be reflections of ourselves more than anything truly ‘out there’. Differences are superficial and relative; they’re merely symptoms of our own needs and fears. (See symptoms point of view.) Conversely, you could say sameness is profoundly absolute. As chapter 56 hints…
Iyengar is what I’d call a small ‘t’ Taoist, providing impartial observational evidence for what makes us tick. She notes how American culture persuades its people to value choice as almost a moral virtue, and so people feel they must never say no to choice. Yet, research shows that given more than 10 options, we make poor choices. Seeing choice as a moral virtue puts me in mind of chapter 38,
Superior virtue is not virtuous, and so has virtue.
Inferior virtue never deviates from virtue, and so is without virtue.
Superior virtue: without doing, and without believing.
Inferior virtue: without doing, yet believing.
She tells how doctors in France decide end-of-life issues for terminally ill infants, while the parents in America make these decisions. That leaves American parents feeling guiltier about outcomes than French parents do. Ironically, the American parents still said they would rather have the choice. Limitless choice promises so much. It is a great story, but it just doesn’t deliver. (See The Story Trumps the Truth.) Iyengar calls this false belief in the value of unlimited choice “phantasmagoria”, i.e., a sequence of real or imaginary images like those seen in a dream.
Essentially, Americans are addicted to choice because they can afford to be. The natural ‘poverty’ of the wild state of existence severely limits choice for all animals. Circumstances in the wild ruthlessly limit options, which prevent animals (humans included) from forming unrealistic expectations. For example, removed from the wild, domesticated cats easily become picky eaters.
Overall, there is nothing unique about Americans, per se. Our unique and widespread circumstances of wealth have favored unbalanced and unrealistic expectations. Most any animal seizes the opportunity for more if given the choice. (See Wealth plays out in odd ways. For an even broader view, see And Then There Was Fire.)