Sunday, December 10, 2006

The false doctrine of too many choices

Cross posted to Agnostics...

This morning's sermon at church reflected, in part, upon the problem of too many choices. Although not directly related to the subject matter, the Pastor commented on how we in America have such a bounty of, well, everything, that we lack the emptiness necessary for a longing for God.

Ignoring the religious issues she was trying to pinpoint, she noted that Tofler in his Future Shock predicted that our society would reach a point where people would recoil from the excess of choices. Over the years, his point of view has been regurgitated over and over again to promote either an economic or political position usually supporting some kind of restriction on freedom.

What was interesting to me was the echo I heard of Joe Biden this morning on TW. His concern was that people in the Middle East didn't have the same kind of definition about freedom that we did, and we might not like the kind of freedom they want. He feared that President Bush, naively, thought they did.

I want to be clear, if my subject title failed to be, that the very concept of too many choices is false. Let me start with an example:
It is 10:30pm tonight. You can go to bed and get some sleep; stay up and watch TV, stay up and read; stay up and have some intimate time with a spouse/partner; stay up and play a game; stay up and blog; stay up and eat; go out and party; what you say? too many choices?

Nonsense, the choice is to go to bed or stay awake. If you choose to go to bed, sleep is soon to follow. If you choose not to, then you have other choices.

A second example (one used on me many years ago by someone that wanted to impose limits on the number of cereals available (I kid you not...)
Walking down the cereal aisle there are literally a hundred different choices. No one can reasonably make an informed choice on each one. Therefore, we need to limit the number of cereals to one or two in each category.
I have three criteria for a morning cereal: it has to have sugar already on it (I hate having to add my own); it has to have at least 5 servings (and since I average 10oz each morning, that means more than 50oz) and it has to cost around 10 cents an oz. There are three that meet those criteria, Frosted Flakes, Frosted Cheerios and Kellogg's Raisin Bran. It takes me about 10 minutes a year to verify that nothing has changed in the aisle and those three remain viable choices. On sale, Frosted Mini Wheats and Lucky Charms add some variety.

The first thing I listen to when someone tells me there are too many choices, is what choices I have available to me, they want to limit. This morning, my Pastor wanted us to consider spending a little more money on church campaign items rather than presents to friends and family. We have so many competitors for our dollars, shouldn't we limit the ones that make us feel good, and help those more unfortunate than ourselves? (Didn't like the construction of that sentence? Preferred, "less fortunate". Tough, my choice!)

The problem most people have that complain there are too many choices is they don't like the choices other people are making. Rather than complain about their choices (and in doing so question their freedom to make their own choices), they complain there were too many choices to begin with. If we limit the choices to a few, then more people would choose their choice.

What makes people feel overwhelmed by choices? Lack of purpose. I walk into the cereal aisle with a clear idea of what I am looking for. The vast number of choices fail my criteria on more than one issue. Knowing what I am looking for helps me to make my choices easily.

The money I earn has a specific purpose. Demands on me to spend it a particular way fail to sway me at all because I already know where it is going. Bush chose to deal with Iraq, many on the left offered up "other choices" so as to distract from his purpose. When that failed, the next argument was "too many choices" expressed as "We can't be the world's policeman."

Externally, there can never be too many choices. With 6 billion people on the earth, every option will have some that prefer it. The more choices, the more freedom people have. It is only the lack of will, the lack of purpose that create in people a frustration with the choices available to them. And for others, the cornucopia of choices means less people will join them in their choice, and that freedom isn't the same freedom they wish others to have.

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