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How Too Many Choices (and Cheeses) Can Drive Us Insane

June 12, 2009 by Alison  
Filed under Alison's Blog, Personal Growth, Reviews

It was the day of my first ever wine and cheese party and preparations were going great. I snuck out of work early, cleaned up my apartment, brought out a few candles that I had been saving for the perfect occasion for about a decade, and had the plates and stemware ready. My friends were bringing the wine and they were entrusting me to supply the cheese, snacks, and 80s music mix (a different type of “cheese”). My plan was to make a run to the grocery store about two hours before the party so everything would be fresh. I assumed that would be plenty of time to buy cheese for twelve guests. How hard can it be to buy cheese, right? I was about to find out.

When I arrived at the cheese section of the grocery store, I saw before me not just a few basic brands, but shelves upon shelves of cheese. Every type of waxy yellow ball you can think of piled up like a giant shrine to the Dairy God – Swiss, Pepper jack, Provolone, Brie and not just Cheddar but Vermont Cheddar, Wisconsin Cheddar, Grafton Cheddar, Canadian Cheddar, and Irish Cheddar. It looked like a cheese bomb exploded dropping cheese from every part of the globe into the Food Emporium. How the heck could I pick 6 or 7 different types of cheeses out of thousands? I stood there in awe, completely overcome with indecision. Even if I ruled out fifty percent of my options because of the price (I’m pretty cheap), I was still left with so many to choose from that I had no idea where to start.

How do you make a decision when you have a thousand options? Do you graph them out on a piece of paper? Do you close your eyes and just grab at them and hope you pick the right ones? Do you pick cheeses out of a hat? Or do you call your parents and ask them what they would buy (and end up with Kraft American Cheese slices)? Do you go for the ones with the most sophisticated sounding names or the ones that are packaged in the coolest looking colors? Or, has it really come to the point where you need to research cheeses on the Internet for ten hours before a party? The sheer number of options was paralyzing me. I wish I had done my cheese homework.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand that choice is good when it comes to cheeses, meats, and men. We are very fortunate because we are not limited by a lack of choices today. We have access to information, we know what products are out there, and we can make more informed decisions as a result. We can try different career paths, date lots of people, and select from hundreds, if not thousands of items at the store when we go shopping.

But what we often forget is that having too many choices can be just as limiting as having too few. And no, this is not some twisted way of rationalizing scarcity. Think about it – if we are plagued by indecision when we are doing something simple like picking out cheese, how the heck are we supposed to pick a spouse or a house or decide what our values and beliefs really are? Have you glanced on Ebay lately? There are about a billion things you can buy on there without even venturing into the store. You can search a database of men on some of these dating sites like you are looking for curtains.

Barry Schwartz has a really interesting book out right now about this very issue called The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. He points out that we are far more satisfied with our pick when we’ve selected one out of a few options than we are when we have to pick one from a pool of hundreds or even thousands. And it makes sense because when we have too many cheeses to choose from we fall into the trap of questioning every choice we make. We ask “What if there is something better out there? What if I’m missing out on another option that would have been more appropriate for me?”

When we can’t find a way to compare and contrast every alternative so we feel chronically worried that we made a bad choice. Or worse yet, we don’t make any choice at all. But “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” (Yes, I just quoted lyrics from a Rush song) You have decided to remain stagnant.

We need to remember that though it is nice to have options, we can’t let them paralyze us. At some point we have to make decisions despite our anxiety. We have to close doors, leave options behind, and take our chances on the one we’ve picked. And of course we won’t always make the absolute best choice. In fact, sometimes we will make terrible choices. (Doesn’t that make you feel a lot better?) But any choice is better than none at all because at least you are moving in some direction. The real mistake is not in picking the wrong cheese; it’s in standing there staring at your options and ending up with no cheese in your life.  Copyright © 2009 Alison James

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