The Slavery of Too Many Choices

ChoicesYears ago I went for lunch at a restaurant in Moscow. I sat down; the bread was already on the table (on all the tables), having been put there when the restaurant opened that morning. It was hard as a rock and probably could have been used in self-defense if the KGB ever came after me. I asked the waitress for a menu and she told me that they did not have one. She proceeded to tell me what they were serving and whether I wanted it cold or hot. On the one hand, I was stunned with the fact that I was being told what I was going to eat. On the other hand, it was refreshing that I didn’t have to make a choice— except for the temperature of the food. The Moscow markets were also very limited. People would buy whatever was on the shelves whether they needed it at that time or not. The issue was not one of choice but of supply. When I returned to the US and went into one of our grocery stores, I had a strange feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices with which I was again confronted.

Barry Schwatrz, the author of The Paradox of Choice (2004) says, “Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well-being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.”  That’s an understatement.  Instead of increasing our happiness, too many choices have tended to increase our anxiety. “Am I getting the best deal? Maybe I just won’t choose right now.”  “I’ve got so many interests, how am I ever going to choose what I want to be? Maybe I’ll put that decision on hold and travel.” “I’m afraid that if I get involved in a relationship it might not be with the one I’m supposed to end up with. Maybe I’ll be like Al Paccino in Heat who vowed never to get involved in a relationship he couldn’t walk away from in thirty seconds.” Could it be more than just an Orwellian truth that “Freedom is Slavery?”

The realization of this “paralysis of analysis” has actually found its way into advertising. I was reading one email advertising guru who said that if you’re trying to convince readers to take one action, a single offer is better than multiple ones. “With multiple offers, readers have to decide which product they want to focus on; then, they have to decide whether or not they want to act on that offer. This divides attention between choices and requires more decisions…” [As an aside: I know that purchasing a car can be an overwhelming experience because of all the choices. So this fall, when I was looking for a newer used vehicle, I used a different tactic.  I prayed for wisdom and then determined beforehand the make and model, the year, the approximate mileage and the price range of the car I wanted. I didn’t care that much about the color or the interior. I sent this information out on the internet to a few dealerships. I visited three of them and bought the car in two weeks.] 

James 1:6-8 tells us that when we ask God for something we should ask in faith and not with a double mind; such doubt produces instability in all we do. In the most recent issue of Christianity Today is an article written by Barry Cooper, Imprisoned by Choices. He says, “There comes a point when not choosing becomes idolatry. It becomes a lack of trust in the God who ordains the decisions we will make, gathers up the frayed ends, and works all things for our good and his glory. Be wise, but then rest in God’s total sovereignty and goodness, and choose. Commit. Make a decision. Be wholehearted and single-minded.” Martin Luther once said that in view of God’s grace “sin boldly.” Perhaps if he were talking about God’s sovereignty he would have said, “choose boldly.”



5 thoughts on “The Slavery of Too Many Choices

  1. Wade Lavigne

    Hi Dave,
    I read your commentary and I have been reflecting on what you said. I think it is wise to pray for wisdom and discernment when faced with a decision. For the eye sees what it sees even when we know what we know. Cognitive illusions show that some parts of our minds are unable to use knowledge available to us in other parts of our minds. As with the eye, our mental “models” remain impervious to the corrections offered by logic, arithmetic, and rational judgement. Unprepared with a firm conviction of heart we become easy prey to various cognitive illusions. These are errors we commit without knowing that we do so, in good faith and errors that we often defend with vehemence, thus making our power of reasoning subservient to our illusions. I totally agree with you that we need to trust in God and put our faith in Him and not in our own easily deceivable mind.For proof of our own fallible perception I refer you to
    a video that proves we are all wired to be deceived by our senses:

    Even though we know the trust we still believe what we see.

  2. Ed Caes

    HI Dave, Your story reminds me of an experience in Kiev. 15 of us had finished our missions job and sat in a restaurant for /12 hour waiting for the waiter. He finally took our orders- another 1/2 hour, and 1/2 hour later he came with our meals. Guess what? We all got Chicken Kiev!

    When Marion and I returned to the U.S.. permanently, we were awe struck by the cholices at the supermarket. The number of choices grows exponentially. Even in a world economy which is stressed out, the choices we have for goods and materials still grows with increasing luxury and high end items. Are you going to the auto show? What is going on?!

    What an example of being totally self-absorbed when one doesn’t know Christ. Priase God that those who know HIm have the freedom to break out of that kind of idolatry. And yet I am tempted.

    Ed Caes

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