Choice – A Catch-22 Situation

A long due post. I was trying to do justice to the topic for quite some time now – seeking an answer to this Catch-22 situation, but still can’t. The following is just a series of thoughts, for which necessarily I have to behave as an economist – 50% on one hand and 50% on another.

As has become the routine nowadays, I drive down to the nearest shopping mall to pick up groceries for the week. The shopping mall is essentially a hypermarket of all goods that exist on Planet Earth, aggregated on a mini-basis. The choices I encounter there is staggering. I can choose from 30 different kinds of shampoo, 10 different kinds of oil, 40 different kinds of biscuits, 7 different varieties of apples, 25 different kinds of cheese and last but not the least, 18 different kinds of toilet paper. The first time I saw such variety, I was pleased and flummoxed at the same time – and those are precisely the feelings that have lead to this Catch-22 situation.

On one hand, I am thoroughly pleased. Those choices cater to my individual tastes. Some marketer has actually thought of selling 15 different kinds of moisturizers – one for ‘normal skin’, another for ‘dry skin’, ‘healthy skin’, ‘normal skin with extra moisturizer’ etc etc. The consumer can pick up a moisturizer which exactly suits his/her skin. Imagine a situation (which was a reality some years ago), where we had only one kind of toothbrush, one kind of schoolbag and every good of only one variety – we necessarily did not have a choice but to buy them. Times change, choices multiply.

It is surprising how opening up India to international markets has brought about such a sweeping change in the country. A country – where I had to wait 3 months before I get a landline connection before, I have now got 3 choices for an instant connection. A country – where the waiting time for a scooter was 7 years, I can now drive a much better vehicle from the showroom today itself. A country – where prices were highly regulated in terms of vegetables and groceries, we now have food marts which cater to every need at different prices.

We now have different industries where we can work. We can now be gainfully employed in different companies, in different countries for entirely different skills. The kind of choice in education is simply mind-blowing. 20 years back, education was limited to Engineering, Medical or the Army. Now, we have multiple choices – from exotic vocations like designing beds for pets to call centers to the most generic of all, the IT industry. The kind of money we can make in different fields is only limited by your ambition. Multiple employers waiting to hire you – and you have choices to make, for good. We have indeed come a long way in having multiple choices for every need in life.

Yet, the very same choices are baffling. It is very difficult to come to terms with choice, if you exactly don’t know what to do, or what you want.* The hypermarket example – how do I know if my skin needs only ‘normal moisturizer’ or ‘normal moisturizer with extra oil’. Vehicle purchase – how do I know which vehicle exactly suits my need? Education – Do I want to do an MBA immediately after Engineering or should I work for a few more years before I venture to do an MBA? Profession – which job would give me satisfaction? What kind of salary would I be satisfied with?

Did I/Do I know the answers to all these questions? I think not.

When I speak to my older relatives, grandmas/grandpas, parents – they were necessarily very satisfied and happy when they were at my age, or so I think. They didn’t have to deal with all such complexities – what do I study next, where should my next job be, which country should I go next, where do I settle, how much money is enough? I don’t think they had to think through and make all these decisions since they didn’t have choices. There was Engineering to do, Government job to take up, a House to be bought in the city and Pension money to live with for the rest of their lives. So simple, so linear – very efficient, thoroughly satisfied.

There have been hundreds of studies which proved that choices beyond a point are bound to throw humans into a psychological condition called ‘decision paralysis’. Yet, I want more choice – choice in everything and anything, so that I can choose what I want (vanity you see, I want make my own decisions and decide what’s best for me). Free markets have definitely made life easier in terms of market offerings but have necessarily bound humanity to make decisions at every step of their life and hence making life more complicated. As I said at the beginning of the post, I still haven’t a clue of achieving the optimal state, whatever that might mean.
* The emphasis I think is the crux to solve this problem of Choice. But then, if I knew exactly what to do, when to do and how to do – I would be God, wouldn’t I? 🙂

P.S –

1) There really isn’t a Catch-22, is there? I actually don’t have a choice about the choices available in hypermarket, education, career etc. – I just have to deal with the complexity, whether I like it or not.

2) My take on the Microsoft-Yahoo battle published here.

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2 comments so far

  1. IdeaSmith on

    ‘Decision paralysis’?! 😀 So there’s even a name for it? It seems affected and vain somehow to crib about being spoilt for choices but being guilt of the same thing, I can see what you’re talking about. Actually I think there really aren’t that many more choices…just a lot more clutter to sift through.

  2. Desh on

    Good post.. It is strange that despite the fact that our eyes and brain can make subconscious choices (http://www.drishtikone.com/?q=content/eternal-illusion-and-how-observer-creates-his-own-reality), where it chooses ONE reality out of a infinite possibilities.. “desire” adds another strange dimension.

    Looking at the current economic mess in the US, I can see how this ability of the marketers to give the people “all they want”, has added to the incredible deficit and imbalance. The trade imbalance at the macro level in the US is an effect of people at the micro level being slaves to their own desires, which they can fuel with temporary means (http://www.drishtikone.com/?q=content/how-usd-38-trillion-us-notes-world-are-threatened-us-consumers)

    When the dust settles on the world’s impending economic crisis (which I believe we are simply pushing off), a normal person’s inability to deal with his/her desires and choices will be the ultimate culprit!

    Cheers,
    desh
    drishtikone.com


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