This summer at TED Global in Edinburgh, a lively networking conference, there was a talk on one of the true and terrible scourges of the modern world. This is a bit of a theme for TED. The same scourge was bravely but mercilessly exposed at TED Global three years ago in Oxford and nine years ago at the ur-TED itself in California. All three talks went down well with the hip folk who attend TED meetings. They nodded in agreement that this scourge must end, and soon.
The scourge in question? The thing that deserved as prominent a castigation as disease and poverty and tyranny? Too much choice. Yes, the pressing and urgent issue we face is that when we enter a supermarket, we find tens of brands of cereal and it is making us – wait for it – anxious. Oh woe.
This was Renata Salecl’s lament this year, as summarised on the TED website: ‘In our post-industrial capitalist age, choice, freedom and self have been elevated into an ideal – the ideal. But the flipside are [sic] increased feelings of anxiety, guilt and inadequacy at facing the possibility of not “making it” – that is, not reaching the ideal… Ultimately this has made us unable to move toward social change; our abundance of choices has made us politically passive.’
This was Sheena Iyengar’s lament three years ago, also from the TED website: ‘Instead of making better choices, we become overwhelmed by choice, sometimes even afraid of it. Choice no longer offers opportunities, but imposes constraints. It’s not a marker of liberation, but of suffocation by meaningless minutiae.’
This was how TED summarised Barry Schwartz’s lament in 2004: ‘Infinite choice is paralysing and exhausting to the human psyche. It leads us to set unreasonably high expectations, question our choices before we even make them and blame our failures entirely on ourselves. His relatable examples, from consumer products (jeans, TVs, salad dressings) to lifestyle choices (where to live, what job to take, who and when to marry), underscore this central point: too much choice undermines happiness.