Choice in America


too much choice cereal

More choice in cereal than you can imagine. Only in America.

Americans are obsessed with choice. I travelled here three weeks ago to stay with my girlfriend for a couple of months. Since then I’ve had to make an astounding number of choices. The local grocery store has 85 types of breakfast cereal to choose from (though not the type of ‘crunchy muesli’ that I like from my home country). When I got my health insurance policy I had to choose between five plans with a multitude of add-ons, inclusions and exclusions, out of pocket expenses, and co-payments. When I order a sandwich I have to specify exactly which toppings should and should not go on it. And I have yet to find out if there is an end to the list of cable TV channels to choose from.

Too little or too much choice?

Having some choice is great. How great, you learn best when you have no choice at all: when you have to stand in line for hours waiting on the whims of a local government department; when you’re hungry and the only thing available is a box of pringles at the 24h gas station; when the only means of getting from the airport to your destination is a rickety tuk tuk run by an extortive taxi maffia; when the only internet connection you can afford is controlled by Facebook. The people who lived part of their lives under communism in countries like Bulgaria and Poland know this better than anyone.

The United States have taken it to the other extreme. The amount of choice here is literally overwhelming. I’ve already written about how this can lead to indecision and less happiness with your decisions in ‘The paradox of choice‘. It also leads to poorer decisions. There are two reasons for this:

  1. There is only so much information we can process. Having too many choices available means that we’ll have to ignore some of the information we’re presented with, at the risk of ignoring an something important.
  2. We lack expertise to make some choices. We’d be better off if someone with more expertise would make (some of) the choices for us.

More information than you can handle

A case in point for the first reason is the purchase of technological devices. I recently had to buy a new electric shaver, as my old one had died. I like the feel of the rotary shaving system, so I decided straight away that I wanted a Philips (Norelco). It turned out that Philips offered 56 different rotary electrical shavers. I had to choose between two or three shaving heads; with a cord or rechargeable; one hour or eight hours charging time; dry, tap rinsable, or shower usable; V-Track, MultiPrecision, ComfortCut, or Lift&Cut blade system; with or without external cleaning station.

Some of these choices have a clear benefit. For example, I definitely wanted a cordless shaver. Others may have some minor advantage, like faster charging, but the cases in which this is a big deal are few. And then there are choices which are completely unintelligible. Which type of stubble requires MultiPrecision blades instead of ComfortCut? I ended up buying a cordless Shaver Series 5000 device. When it arrived I realized that it didn’t have the highly useful integrated sideburn trimmer which I had got used to with my previous two devices. The overload of choice made me focus on irrelevant details while overlooking something essential.

Leave the surgery to the surgeons

The second reason is aptly illustrated when you try to order a sandwich anywhere in the US. Aside from picking a type of sandwich—say a BLT—you have to decide on the type of bread, as well as on various toppings. Do you want onion on it? Cheese? What about jalapenos? And which of five dressings do you want? I’ve found myself puzzled by these kinds of decisions. I don’t know if the honey mustard dressing will go well with salmon. Does the spicy burrito need extra chilis? I wish the chef would just decide on which ingredients make up a tasty sandwich and sell it to me as is.

A bad case of lack of expertise (on my part as a consumer) I experienced at McDonald’s. On a road trip in the thirty-plus degrees (Celcius) Texas heat we stopped at the yellow arches to get a refreshing drink. I don’t like sodas, so I decided to have an ice coffee. While I’ve had a few tasty ice coffees over the years, I don’t know at all how to make one. I also know that they can be very different, ranging from the strong sweet coffee dripped on ice cubes in Vietnam, to the ice-cream-like frappuccinos they serve at Starbucks. But I like coffee in general, and since I was up for something cold, I thought not much could go wrong.

too much choice coffee

The McDonalds ice coffee as I imagine it should have been.

At the counter I first had to choose between a frappe, an ice coffee or an iced mocha. When my gf asked the guy taking our order about the difference between a frappe and an ice coffee, he replied: “the frappe has stuff in it that the ice coffee doesn’t.” Great. Taking my chances, I ordered the ice coffee. Next I had to choose if I wanted a flavoured syrup in it. I don’t like flavoured coffee, so no syrup please. “So you want a plain ice coffee?” Euhm… yeah, I suppose. A few minutes later the person actually preparing the coffee asked me: “Do you want it plain coffee or plain milk?” Huh? What is that supposed to mean? Well, plain coffee, I guess. I didn’t order an ice milk after all.

When my drink arrived it turned out to be a bland drip coffee with nothing added but ice cubes. It tasted awful, lacking any sweetness and having a watery texture. Am I to blame for ordering the wrong thing? In one sense, yes. After all, I did order a ‘plain coffee ice coffee without syrup or stuff that goes into a frappe’. But I have absolutely no expertise in making ice coffees, and I wouldn’t know what constitutes a plain one versus the more elaborate variety. By presenting me with too much choice the happy clown got me to make a poor decision. One that easily could have been avoided if they had pre-selected the drinkable types of ice coffee for me.

Imagine that you go to a restaurant to have a pizza. You feel like eating something cheesy, so you order the four cheeses pizza. Next the waiter asks you which four cheeses you want from the following selection: cheddar, parmesan, mozzarella, gorgonzola, brie, white, gouda, asiago, swiss, or emmental (I’ve seen each of these on pizza menus at least once). After quickly going over the 5,040 permutations in your mind, you decide on mozzarella, parmesan, gorgonzola, and asiago. Next he asks you to choose if you want tomato sauce, white sauce, or plain olive oil. Do you want basil, oregano, sage, or a combination of those? Do you want white flour or whole wheat dough? Should the chef add yeast to the dough? How long would you like it baked? At what temperature?

Essentially you’re being asked to provide the recipe to make a pizza. While you may or may not know how to answer each of these questions, the point of going to a restaurant is to not have to think about all of them, and having an expert prepare you a tasty meal. By giving you so much choice the restaurant is essentially passing the buck back to you, and doing you a disservice.

Keep choices limited

The problem of too much choice applies to restaurants, stores, financial services, technology, and many other areas of business in the US. In the case of a restaurant, the worst that can happen is that you’ll eat an unsatisfying meal. But in other cases the consequences can be more serious. Making the wrong choices in your pension plan can lead to financial ruin. Picking the wrong health insurance policy can literally cost you your life.

Companies would do well to offer choices in a smart and responsible way. It is their duty to pre-select options based on their expertise, and to present them to consumers in a clear and transparant way. Everyone will be the happier for it.

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