Once, when I was suffering a fit of depression, I walked into a supermarket to buy a packet of washing powder. Confronted by a shelf full of different possibilities, I stood there for 15 minutes staring at them, then walked out without buying any washing powder at all.
I still feel echoes of that sensation of helplessness. If I just want to buy one item but discover that if I buy three of the items I will save myself half the item price, I find myself assailed by choice paralysis.
I hate making consumer choices at the best of times, because I have this uncomfortable suspicion that big companies are trying to gull me out of as much money as possible, using sophisticated techniques designed by people who are smarter than I am.
For instance, when I buy an insurance product, how can I decide whether I should just buy the cheapest, or the best? The best is the one most likely to pay out without penalty or fuss, but that information is much harder to find out than factors such as cost, extent of cover, etc. It’s complicated. So I often try not to make choices – by just putting my payments for insurance with my usual insurers on direct debit, for example, which means I don’t have to think about shopping around.
This issue of choice and complexity lies at the heart of the experience of being modern. It penetrates commerce, politics and our personal lives. It may even be connected to the fact that there are higher levels of depression in society than ever before.
This idea was suggested by Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice. Choice oppresses us. Why? Because there are too many choices and they are often too complex for us to be confident that we are making the right one.
When you might have 200 potential choices to make of a particular style of camera, it is difficult to feel sure you have chosen the right one – even if you spend an inordinate amount of time trying to make a rational decision. Or you may see the same model two weeks after you’ve bought it being sold more cheaply. When there was less choice and fewer types of camera, this kind of experience was rare. Our capacity for hindsight has become a means of punishing ourselves.
Complexity is not entirely accidental. Late capitalism solves the dilemma of competition (for the producer) through complexity. To try to choose a mortgage, or a pension, or a computer, requires a tremendous amount of application, so we become relatively easy to gull. Whether it is a power company or a loan company, we struggle to understand tariffs, terms and the small print. Exhausted, we just take a stab and hope for the best, or we succumb to inertia; choose what we have always chosen. Consumers are thrown back on simple cues that are advantageous to the producers, such as brand recognition.
Complexity also impacts on politics. Once it was pretty clear who to vote for – your class position, on the whole, made it a simple matter of self-interest for most voters. Now we have become closer to what is ironically the democratic ideal – ie choice-making actors – voting is more of a challenge than it once was. Do you really have a good enough grasp of economic theory to judge whether it is best to spend or save in a recession? Do you understand the complexities of private provision in the NHS enough to rule it out? Do you know enough about international affairs to support a reduction in defence spending, or a retreat from the EU? Most people don’t – so, again, they make snap judgments based on loyalty and sentiment.