The blessing and the curse of choice

Earlier this year, I decided to stop buying leather shoes. This was in part because I’d stopped eating beef for good, and it felt like the right companion thing to do. But I have to admit, what motivated me most powerfully was what for me was the immense relief of reducing possible choices, or as I thought of it, “bounding my consumption universe.” 

You see, I really enjoy shoes. My high school yearbook referenced Imelda Marcos and me in the same sentence, and while I’m very far from that now, I still retain a love of interesting (yet practical) footwear. And faced with the bounties of artsy shoes on San Francisco’s Hayes Street, I decided once and for all that having a rule that instantly placed some 95% of the possible options out of bounds would be a relief to both me and my pocketbook.

I’m by no means alone in my longing for a simpler decision space, and I was reminded by this by an NYT piece a couple of days ago. “Shoppers on a ‘Diet’ Tame the Urge to Buy,” describes two Web challenges to go on “clothing diets,” started by women who were tired of the time and money they were spending on deciding what to wear each day. 

One, Six Items or Less, asked participants to go for a month wearing only six items (or less) – not including underwear or accessories or sports gear, but definitely including shirts, dresses, trousers, jeans and all of the other staples of the modern wardrobe. The other, the Great American Apparel Diet, asks participants to go for a year without buying any clothing.

2004’s The Paradox of Choice, by American psychologist Barry Schwartz, was one of the first books to popularize the growing understanding that reducing or eliminating consumer choice actually leads to greater happiness. As one participant in the Six Items or Less challenge noted, “Anything that removes complexity or cycles from your day is really valuable. I have freed a lot of bandwidth in my head.” 

Now, obviously: this is what the Twitterverse would call a #firstworldproblem. Too many of the 6.6 billion of us sharing this planet don’t have these choices in the first place. Amartya Sen described human development as freedom: freedom to choose how to think and to live.

But this does not mean that “overchoice” – a term I’ve just made up, playing on the trend to talk about “overnutrition” versus “undernutrition”- is not a problem. Quite the contrary – I’m coming to think that “overchoice” and “underchoice” together capture what lies behind two of the most pressing issues of our future as a society: environmental sustainability and inequity.

[To be continued… I’m posting this partially written, as have committed to a dear friend to post whether done or not and she will scold if I do not. Will come back to this – more to say!]

5 thoughts on “The blessing and the curse of choice

  1. Hey Patrin! I think I’m going to try the whole 6 items for a month thing! However, I am very happy that I don’t have to count my pajama’s as one of my 6 items. Are you going to do it too?

    And this question may defeat the point of this post… but what do those leather shoes you bought look like?

  2. Cute shoes!

    I haven’t signed up, but I am going to do it probably starting today maybe since I am wearing two of my 6 items. Since I have a newborn and am on maternity leave, it’s all about what I can nurse in. My items are: 2 black dresses, 1 grey dress, 1 pair of jeans, 1 pair of khaki shorts and 1 green shirt. I need to cheat and add 1 black sweater to this list b/c I am flying next week and don’t want to freeze on the plane.

    What will your items be?

    • That sounds like a highly versatile set of clothing! Dresses are great aren’t they? I think it’s find to add the black sweater. Outerwear doesn’t count, so I think we can call the sweater outerwear. Six items is easier in summer.

      Not sure what mine will be but probably not too far off yours. Probably a long-sleeved black top, a black t-shirt, jeans, a pair of white cotton Thai fisherman’s trousers, and a dress of some sort.

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