We’ve all been there: standing in aisle five of the supermarket trying to decide which jar of mustard to buy. Do we go organic, or for the brand with whole mustard seeds? Or do we simply pick the one in the brightest yellow bottle?
Contemporary Psychologist Dr. Barry Schwartz gave a fascinating Ted talk (with over seven million views!) on what he refers to as the explosion of choices we now have in our society. Some examples Dr. Schwartz cites:
Shopping: The suparmarket at which he shops, offers 285 varieties of cookies, 75 brands of iced tea, 230 types of soups, 174 types of salad dressings and 40 different brands of toothpaste from which to choose.
Healthcare: It used to be that when you got sick you went to the doctor who told you what was wrong and what medicine to take. Today doctors are trained to give you “options”. Option A or option B. Option A has certain benefits and certain risks. Option B has these benefits and these risks. “Doc; which one should I choose?”. “You need to choose yourself, you’re the patient”.
Family Life: Back when most people tried to get married and have kids when the first opportunity presented itself, the only choice one had to make was: with whom? Today it’s not just whom do I want to marry but when? Before my career gets off the ground or after? What if I choose to push that decision off till after my career is doing OK but then I fall in love? More choices.
Work: Technology has enabled us to work every minute of every day from anywhere in the world so now we have to keep deciding whether or not we should be working at any given moment! We could be with a friend, spouse or significant other and the cell phone buzzes. Even if we choose not to pick it up we still have to decide whether to take the call or answer that email.
There’s no question – we value our freedom. For the most part, in western society we are fortunate enough that the freedom we worry about is not literal. For us, freedom has become synonymous with having options — with the ability and privilege to choose for ourselves from endless possibilities, accountable to no one else. These days we have so many more choices to make and so many more options to choose from, but are these endless options making us more happy? Studies actually demonstrate the opposite…
Giving Up The Driver’s Seat
In the TEDxStanford talk, “Sometimes it’s good to give up the driver’s seat,” marketing professor Baba Shiv reveals that discomfort over making choices extends into medical decisions. Five years ago, Shiv’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“The most harrowing and agonizing part of the whole experience was that we were making decision after decision,” Shiv shares in his talk. “The wisdom of the ages is that when it comes to decisions of importance, it’s best to be in charge. But are there contexts where we’re far better off taking the passenger seat and having someone else drive?”
Shiv decided to test the theory on undergraduate students about to solve word puzzles. While one set of students was asked to choose between two teas — caffeinated or relaxing chamomile — the other group was told by the researchers which of the teas to drink. In the end, the students assigned a tea solved more puzzles than those who were given a choice. Shiv hypothesized that this is because making the choice allows a person to have doubt about their decision when faced with the prospect of immediate feedback.
Shiv’s thoughts on choice are counterintuitive. But his work is part of a growing body of research on choice. Below, more studies — many from TED speakers — suggest that having a variety of options isn’t always what we need.
Researchers Sheena Iyengar and Emir Kamenicar looked at the retirement savings choices made by half a million employees through the Vanguard Group. Analyzing the data, they found that for every 10 additional funds offered to an employee, the chances that an employee would invest in none of the above increased by 2.87%. Dr. Schwartz in his talk explains: “With 50 funds to choose from, it’s so damn hard to decide which fund to choose that you’ll just put it off until tomorrow. And then tomorrow, and then tomorrow,” he says. “By not participating, they are passing up as much as $5,000 a year from the employer.”
Life and Death Decisions
It seems that when it comes to having options, less is more and this principle holds true when it comes to more serious life issues. In her Ted Talk “The Art of Choosing,” Iyengar tells of another study conducted on parents in both France and the United States faced with the horrible decision of whether to take their infant off of life support. In the United States, this decision rests on the parents. However, in France, this decision is made by medical professionals. Iyengar and her fellow researchers looked at how the parents felt a year after in both countries. They found that while American parents harbored hugely negative emotions about the experience, the French parents were more able to reframe the tragedy with statements like, “Noah was here for so little time, but he taught us so much.” Although the American parents felt strongly that they would not have wanted their doctors to make the decision, their experience with this challenging situation was in the end worse than their counterparts in France.
Mo’ money, mo’ problems
Schwartz mentions another favorite study conducted by David G. Myers of Hope College and Robert E. Lane of Yale University. In looking at market data, the two found that — even though the gross domestic product had doubled in the United States over a 30-year period — the proportion of the population describing themselves as “very happy” had declined by about 5 percent. When given far more choices 14 million Americans reported feeling less happy than their peers 30 years before.
Trapped In The Wild The studies demonstrating this point are endless – but the message is clear. More options does not always equal more happiness. In fact, the most common results of all this “freedom” are paralysis and/or crippling doubt – a phenomenon I refer to as being “trapped in the wild.”
We have so much open space, with nothing limiting our choices and with more and more options presented to us every year. We are simply not equipped to make so many good decisions day in and day out, particularly in those areas in which we have not been properly trained.
SO WHAT TO DO!? Not make decisions? Put them off? Second guess ourselves? No.
One answer is to stay in the driver’s seat, put your foot on the gas and don’t look back… but consult a map, and bring along a co-pilot! My navigation app of choice? The Torah. My co-pilot? God …
Torah – A Navigation App
Considering the alternatives are stalling out, going the wrong direction over and over again, or crashing and regretting, consulting some kind of system like the Torah to help us make some of the more important choices isn’t such a radical or crazy religious thing to do. Not only does it help us make better decisions (especially if you believe Torah comes from a higher place), it takes some of the pressure off deciding so many important things for ourselves. The Torah is a tried and tested way to make choices and to pave a good path in life. It is a system that, regardless of where you believe it comes from, has maintained the Jewish Nation throughout centuries of persecution, and not only allowed us to survive, but to give back to the world in such a powerful and productive way.
The word Halacha (which refers to Jewish law) derives from the word halach which means to go or to walk. Torah helps us walk through life, enabling us to make decisions not simply based on what we think or feel is right but what we believe our Creator does. Following Halacha doesn’t fix all problems but gives us a better framework for approaching the more delicate and challenging parts of our lives.
Take the example of Judaism’s laws of Family Purity. Referred to in the Talmud as a “Hedge of Roses”, the halacha prescribes a period of abstention between husband and wife during the woman’s menstrual cycle and somewhat thereafter. Besides the mystical reasons underlying this area of Jewish tradition, this practice has the practical benefit of creating a monthly kind of honeymoon for the couple. A healthy sexual tension is created during the period of refraining and a reunion of sorts takes place each month after the woman returns from the mikvah (ritual bath) and the couple can once again be intimate. Many couples of course decide on their own when to be with one another, but then again it’s another choice we are forced to make that might be better decided by a higher authority who knows more. Following the laws of family purity transfer at least some of the decision making from the couple to God. It doesn’t guarantee a better sex life but it is interesting to note that the divorce rate among couples following these laws is dramatically lower.
We like to think that the more choices we get to make the better off we are, but we know that true freedom is not necessarily manifested by having no limits. Narrowing our options by consulting a “navigation app”, especially when we have faith in the system we consult, actually produces more happiness than deciding everything on our own. The sooner we stop pretending we know it all and start looking for guidance from a higher place, the sooner we will feel more content and fulfilled.
A Challenge For You
And now I challenge you. Take note this week every time you are prompted to make a decision. Whether it’s something as mundane as brand of mustard to buy, or as important as what type of degree to get or to commit to someone you’ve been dating – take notice of how you make that decision. Do you consult a value system, a particular mentor, a philosophy, or are you completely on your own? Do you feel overwhelmed and stuck, or do you feel empowered and confident? Why? Just hold onto these answers, or share them below. We will continue to explore this topic in future blog posts.