Saturday, June 11, 2005
The Tyranny of Choice and the One Track Mind
Epidemiology is to biology what social epidemiology (or social psychology) is to neuroscience. But each discipline requires the other to provide true explanations for behavior. Thus, to know how a disease spreads and impacts a population, it’s critically important to inform that knowledge with a rudimentary or metaphorical understanding of how diseases work. For example, in the 19th century, the epidemiology of malaria was well known, but because the spread of the disease was attributed to ‘bad air’ rather than mosquito, epidemiological knowledge could only suggest a partial remedy, if at all. For social psychology however this connection is missing, as the behavior of people in social settings is generally not informed by neuroscience, but rather by the folk psychology of every day motives or desire. This disconnect means that social observations can result in prescriptions that are only partially effective because they miss the real reasons for behavior.
How social epidemiology goes astray is illustrated by Barry Schwartz’s recent and quite important book ‘The Tyranny of Choice’. Schwartz noted from an abundance of sociological evidence that the increase in choices marked by the post industrial world is directly correlated with a rise in unhappiness. An abundance of choices means that we are more likely to suffer an opportunity loss for alternatives foregone, and that our adaptation to choices we make lead to the uncomfortable perception that the grass is always greener next door. So what is Schwartz’s prescription? It is to simply limit choice. The problem with this remedy is that neurologically, people (and indeed most living things) are neurologically wired to be aroused or find pleasure in the apprehension of choice, or in other words, looking forward to things. The apprehension of future choices, or ‘wanting’, is core to modern neuroscientific explanations of motivation, thus rendering Schwartz’s contrarian argument as neurologically unrealistic. Rather, it is in the execution and not in the apprehension of choice that unhappiness looms, and it may be argued that it is not choices per se that make us miserable, but the present ability to make choices at any time. For example, in 1955 we could check our mail, our stocks, see our favorite TV show, or even chat on the phone only at specified times and places. Nowadays, we can do all of these things at any place and any time. The result is a world that not only multiplies hopes (or choices), but multiplies distractions. In the past, distractions were limited, now they are everywhere, and the modern problem becomes not what to choose, but when to choose. So not limiting but delaying choice is perhaps a better remedy for the tyranny of choice. But this simple and obvious solution eludes Schwartz because he fails to recognize that the apprehension of choices is not just a rational but an affective thing, and that the prospect of infinite choice (or freedom) is as innate and important to us as taking a breathe.
(For more on the neurology of choice, I recommend the website of the neuroscientist Kent Berridge, who has included and admirable set of articles on the neuroscience of incentive motivation, or how we make choices.)