Notes from Windward: #68


Paradox of Choice

by Barry Schwartz

Why more is less

     I often think of the sustainabile live as being about crafting "The Great And" since it offers a huge range of authentic choices as compared to the illusion of choice offered by the consumer system. For example, your local grocery store may offer you 85 different types of cookies, but are they different in any meaningful way since they're all made from highly processed ingredients, preservatives and a host of industrial chemicals. But home-baked cookies that blend freshly-ground whole wheat flour, leached acorns, peanut butter and bulk molasses--well, now we're talking about cookies that truly are different.

     Creating an intentional community involves making a range of choices as to what we intend to do and how we intend to go about doing it, a freedom which Schwartz argues can have an adverse impact on our satisfaction with the choices we make. Our consumer society operates on the axiom that the more choices we have, the happier we'll be--a view that Windward has tried to incorporate as well albeit somewhat differently--but Schwartz presents an impressive argument that people often react to choice in ways that are counter-intuitive and problematic. For example, when people were offered six different types of jam, they were more likely to buy a jar than when they were offered twenty-four different varieties.

     As autonomous adults we like to think that we make choices based on our experiences, but one especially disturbing study described in the book explored the way we remember experiences. Men undergoing colonoscopies were divided into two groups; both groups underwent the same procedure, but with the second group, the probe was left in place for an additional twenty seconds before being removed. The second group actually had to endure the intrusion longer than the first but they rated the experience as less unpleasant and were more responsive to future calls for follow-up examinations. Since we're talking about a key cancer-screening test, that subtle change of procedure has profound implications.

     Schwartz discusses the problem of learned helplessness and how as people are offered an ever widening array of choices that don't really matter, their sense of helplessness increases. Schwartz writes, &quto;Our social and economic system, which is based in part on an unequal distribution of scarce and highly desirable commodities, inherently propels people into lives of perpetual social comparison and dissatisfaction, that reforming people without paying attention to the system won't work."

     At Windward we've created a social structure that is designed to provide our members with a broader range of choices than they would enjoy if they were going it alone, and while that's served us well, looking back it's also clear that there's been a real organizational cost to embracing the path of choice. By way of illustration, I'll offer a tale of two inheritances. In our early years, two of our members each received inheritances of $25,000, that at a time when gasoline was fifty cents a gallon. One was emotionally devastated by her mother's death, and in her pain she went away and squandered the money within four months. When the money was gone, she found it too embarrassing to return.

     The other received the inheritance in the form of stock, and instead of cashing it in, he elected to keep the stock and live off the dividends something he was able to do because of the low-cost of living we enjoy by working together to meet our core needs. Over the next decade, the stock merged and split to the point where it became worth more than a $100K at a time when gas was about a dollar and a quarter a gallon. This member was in charge of our goat program, and he decided that he wanted to expand the herd to more than a hundred goats, a number which most of us felt exceeded the carrying capacity of our land. Rather than limit the size of the herd, he elected to acquire land nearby and proceed on his own.

     Each person made diametricly opposite choices, but the outcome to the community was the same in that we wound up losing a valuable member. Looking back, it's evident that our commitment to maintaining the autonomy of the individual within community has enabled us to continue where other more centralized communities have failed, but it's also clear that this path has cost us as well. The Paradox of Choice goes a long way towards explaining the psychological mechanisms involved in that dynamic.

     Anyone who values their autonomy would be well served by reading what Schwartz has to say about how people make the decisions that shape their lives.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 68