Thursday, June 2, 2011

Choice - overchoice - freedom - un-freedom



Photo: 99 cents - Andreas Gursky

As read in Alvin Toffler's "The Future Shock" (remember this was published in 1970!)... How visionary:

The material goods of the future will be many things; but they will not be standardized. We are, in fact, racing toward “over-choice” – the point at which the advantages of diversity and individualization are cancelled the complexity of the buyer’s decision-making process. […] We have reached a dialectical turning point in the technological development of society. And technology, far from restricting our individuality, will multiply our choices – and freedom – to exponential levels.
Whether man is prepared to cope with the increased choice of material and cultural wares available to him is, however, a totally different question. For there comes a time when choice, rather than freeing the individual, becomes so complex, difficult and costly, that it turns into its opposite. There comes a time, in short, when choice turns into overchoice and freedom into un-freedom.
[…] At a certain point the addition of more (car) options requires more decision-making than they are worth. 

This is what appeared in an article in Guardian newspaper in 2008 almost 40 years later:
Dan Ariely, one of an increasingly influential group of behavioural economists, who analyse how people behave everywhere from supermarkets to stock markets - and they have found a chasm between what traditional economists and regulators presume we do, and what really happens. One of the most exciting areas of research, behavioural economics could overturn many of the assumptions and assertions that shape modern policy-making.
Ariely presents his case, as is the behaviouralist way, based on evidence from real life, such as Sainsbury's. Instead of algebra, he uses shopping trolleys; in place of textbooks, he refers to shelf prices. And to attack the cliche that people always want more choice, he deploys ... jam.
"Economists know all about choosing jam," he says, ambling down an aisle with 73 varieties. He describes an experiment where academics set up a tasting booth in a store in California. On some days they put out six kinds of jam, on others 24. When the booth had 24 types, it was mobbed - "there was more colour, more excitement". But it was the sales that were truly remarkable: with six jams on show, 30% of customers bought a jar; when 24 were out, only 3% did. "Jams are hardly complex things, but people saw 24 stacked together and thought: 'I have no idea how to deal with this.'"

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