What is Choice?

“I have no talent for certainty, Susie.” -Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park (1999)

As I continue to struggle with making a decision, wavering and delaying and weighing alternatives, I started to think about what factors are involved in the process. Choices are a part of everyday life. Something as simple as a trip to the grocery store results in a multitude of options, name brand vs. generic, healthy vs. glutinously rich and fattening, varieties, flavorings, a whole array of options and prices. The imagination of manufacturers is not limited, nor are the marketing departments in making us think that we need the product.

But what really constitutes choice?

Choice implies economic means. In Beggars and Choosers, Rickie Solinger argues that choice is only possible if one has options. Options require socioeconomic privileges, whether it be money, opportunity, or access. Therefore, the use of the word choice is complicated by all that it implies. You could say that I have a choice of buying a luxury car or a cheap car, a house in a neighborhood with a good school or one that is not. However, one only has that choice if the options are all equally open to that person. Choice in a non-starter for some people because of their circumstances.

The ability to make a decision, even talking about it, comes from a privileged place that not everyone has access to. The choices I have, the decisions I can make, are not unlimited.

For instance, take something as ordinary as going to see a movie. Many people wouldn’t even bat an eyelash at the idea. That’s easy. Go to your car, drive to the movie theater, buy tickets. But what if there isn’t a movie theater in your neighborhood? What if you don’t have a car, and it isn’t within walking distance? Is there good public transportation in the area? Is the public transportation affordable? What is the cost of movie tickets? Is that a cost you can afford? How many people do you need to buy them for? Yourself? Family? Children? Is the money instead needed for some basic necessity? Something that seems so easy for people of a certain socioeconomic status can quickly spiral into impossibility for someone who lacks the means.

Imagine how that can affect bigger issues. Something that may be, to one person, a basic right is reduced for another into the realm of not even being an option.

On the other end of the spectrum is too much choice. This can have a paralyzing effect, so that, rather than shift through the various options, one simply does not choose. In his TED talk entitled “The paradox of choice”, Barry Schwartz says that we end up less satisfied with our choices when there are many options than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from. He says that this is because, no matter what the outcome of the decision, it is easy to imagine the alternatives and to think that they may have been better, or to consider the opportunity costs, what you missed out on by choosing something. This makes you regret the decision that you made, thereby reducing the satisfaction from the chosen option, even if it was a good decision.

Schwartz ends his talk with a discussion of the problems with too little choice. Perhaps, as he suggests, if we could shift our multitude of choices to those who lack them, the world would be a better place. Perhaps, if we could even out the playing field even just a little, everyone would have access to choices that would improve their lives.