In a world of large scale production, mass consumerism, and high market competitiveness, the amount of choices we have keep on increasing, but our satisfaction, paradoxically, doesn’t. Typically, the more choice we have, the happier we are because we feel we have more freedom to make a decision that perfectly matches our tastes and preferences.
There are a couple of points I’d like to make about choices, and in particular, food choices. Before I discuss how we can manage choices more efficiently, according to research from the field of Behavioral Economics.
First, imagine you were reincarnated as Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway, and were stranded on an island. After getting over the shock of what had just happened, you begin to instinctively find ways of sustaining your health. You look for water, food, and shelter. With time, you begin to innovate new ways of creating ways of doing those things more efficiently. You might design a clever way of collecting water from leaves after rain fall, you might design and learn to use new weapons to hunt for food or develop better techniques for collecting fruits and vegetables.
You may then look for ways to protect yourself from nature, or sheltering yourself. You may find new ways of creating clothes or building a house (Or live in a cave). You’ve already prioritized what really matters, everything else is irrelevant. Self-preservation is all that matters.
Food choices are the least of your concerns. All you care about is finding anything with nutritional value that would help you survive. The only criteria that you’re using is functionality. It’s how we once lived for a very long time, and now are living in a very different world from the cavemen who we consider our ancestors. At one point, we didn’t care about what kind of food we ate.
We now care what kind of food we’re getting, if it looks fresh enough, how good it tastes, how well it’s packaged, what brand it is, and which store we’re getting it from, and how much we’re going to pay for it, whether it’s good value for money, and how long it will last, how many calories it contains, and how much saturated fat, unsaturated fat, sodium, and sugar it has. Of course, I’m not suggesting that this is a bad thing in itself, and that we should go back to eating coconuts and fish, and talk to a volleyball. But too much choice is overwhelming, it’s mentally draining, frustrating, and can make us supremely inefficient.
The criteria mentioned above include only some of the things our brains need to calculate, and in reality, we couldn’t possibly calculate with any reasonable accuracy what the most ideal choice would be. Often times, we are so overwhelmed by all this data that we sometimes make no choice at all for fear of making the wrong choice. We always have that dreadful fear of thinking back a few days later, and wishing we had gotten that other one.
This problem of choice can, of course, be extended to several different areas of life, food is only one of them and I think deserves particular attention as I feel it ought to be the least complicated choice we make, but is quite the opposite. In restaurants, menus often have 7, 8, or 9 categories of food, and every category has about 8 or 9 choices of its own. That’s a range of 49 to 81 choices on what you’re going to consume, for a very short amount of time. Sometimes, people spend more time choosing what they want to eat than time actually eating. This isn’t because people are indecisive, it’s because there’s simply too much choice. There’s too much data to process to make a confident decision about what you want to eat.
Choosing food should not have to take so much of our time. The simple reason is opportunity cost. The amount of time and energy that we spend on simply choosing what to eat could be effectively used for something much more worthwhile and satisfying.
There are many people who are aware of this, and have devised clever ways of dealing with the problem of choice. Think of how much time you spend choosing what to wear, every single day. Imagine that time were used differently, and that energy was put into other activities. An interesting solution is one used by the president of the U.S. Obama himself has admitted to wearing only grey or blue suits. “You need to focus your decision-making energy,” he told Vanity Fair. “You need to routinize yourself.”
As for buying or ordering food, a smart way of dealing with all this choice chaos is simply by making choices before looking at the menu. Decide if you want meat, chicken or fish, whether you’d like it with vegetables, or without, with cheese or without etc.. Grocery shopping, Clothes shopping, Electronics shopping, or any kind of shopping work the same way.
Once you’ve identified what you want beforehand, you’ve already removed choices you would have had to make in the future. This narrows down your options, and in this case, it’s exactly what you need, that is of course, if what you need is to use your time and energy more efficiently towards other things.
“The Paradox of Choice”, Barry Schwartz