Too Many Choices

- wadE

Since the death of George Plimpton, who is left with the ability to write intelligently and in a comedic manner about football? The answer is TMQ columnist Gregg Easterbrook found every Tuesday on

You might recall TMQ from ESPN's Page 2, but if you haven't heard, he got booted from that gig when late last year he wrote in his online weblog that the violence in movies shouldn't be tolerated by corporate leaders (who happen to be Jewish) like Michael Eisner (CEO of Disney - and therefore ESPN).

While he had a good point, he could/should have left off the Jewish part of that because giving the thumbs up to violent movies in the name of the almighty dollar knows no religion. I don't believe there was any anti-Semitic feeling behind his comment, but even if you stride near that area, you pay the price.

At any rate, this article isn't about that, it's about Mr. Easterbrook's latest book, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.

George F. Will recently wrote a column praising his book.

The basic idea of the book is: "American life expectancy has dramatically increased in a century, from 47 to 77 years. Our great-great-grandparents all knew someone who died of some disease we never fear; as recently as 1952, polio killed 3,300 Americans. Our largest public health problems arise from unlimited supplies of affordable food.
The typical American has twice the purchasing power his mother or father had in 1960. A third of America's families own at least three cars. In 2001 Americans spent $25 billion -- more than North Korea's GDP -- on recreational watercraft."

However, people are less happy and content than they were decades ago. How and why is this?

He poses many possible explanations which Mr. Will covers in his column, but I think an important part of the answer comes from an article I read in the USA Today last week.

Author Barry Schwartz has written a book called, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. His USA Today article on the multitude of choices of digital cameras illustrates his point that the endless selection of everything actually burdens people, and causes more harm than good.

The psychological impacts of this overload are scary, but one of the many he mentions sticks out: "When decisions have disappointing results, people tend to blame themselves because they feel that with so many options available, unsatisfying results must be their fault."

I don't know about you, but that sentence defines me and my career at this moment in time. While I am a proponent of the general public needing to take responsibility for their actions and their outcomes, there are some instances where things just go bad, and it's outside your control. Constant second guessing isn't helpful, learning from a mistake and moving on is. What is worse is that this easily leads to a situation of making no decisions based on a fear of making a wrong one.

On the flip side of this is a book by Virginia Postrel called The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness.

My favorite part of one of the amazon book reviews is: "At the Great Indoors, a hugely successful department store chain, customers can choose from among 250 lavatory faucets. If that represents too little variety, there are more than 1,500 distinct models of drawer pulls." Wow.

Ms. Postrel's basic argument is that the variety of options allows each consumer their own choice to maximize the aesthetic pleasure they get from drawer pulls to toilet brushes.

While is an interesting argument, I think the "uber-plethora" of choices prohibits people from enjoying their choice as much as they agonize over making the choice in the first place.

I think we all enjoy living in the land of plenty as opposed to living in a hut, subsisting on goat's milk in a harsh climate. But when is enough, enough?

- 01/16/2004

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