A couple days ago I wrote that “these days” we have too many choices and that, perhaps, those choices impede our happiness because each decision carries the heavy uncertainty of all the other options we ruled out. From the thoughtful and meaningful emails I received afterwards, it appears that the idea resonates with a lot of people.
Of course, I’m far from the first person to talk about the oppressiveness of choice. It seems like every modern anthropologist and sociologist works the theme into their contemporary talking points. Not long ago, UTNE Reader had a fantastic issue dedicated solely to the study of choice. It was also one of the “thinking democrats'” main arguments against Bush’s social security reform. (Giving Americans choice in how they invest their social security would cause them anxiety that they were making the wrong choices, went the argument.)
Going back even further, Sartre – in the middle of the 20th century – said that humans are too free. They, as in you and me, as in right now, can do absolutely anything the physical properties of the world allow for. And that limitless freedom is so terrifying that we invent boundaries and rituals, rules and commitments to convince ourselves that we are not really so free. “I must live here, I must finish school, I must keep this job, I can’t sleep with more than 10 people, I need to get married,” we tell ourselves because, frankly, life is a lot easier and a lot more comforting when we are told what we must do.
Even further back, Nietzsche’s idea of the Eternal Return essentially implied that we are free of responsibility for our actions – the choices we choose – because there is no way to know, in the grand scheme of things, which choice was “the best.”
But now, like never before, our lives are inundated with more choices than Nietzsche or Sartre could have ever foreseen. Just imagine if you were born 100 years ago in a rural Guatemalan town of 2,000 people. Imagine the choices you would have had to make throughout your life and compare that to your life today. What we study, our interests, our 13.2 careers, who we date, where we live, what we eat, the music we listen to. the way we dress, who we marry, who we divorce, who we remarry, what car to buy, how many kids we choose to have, our computer operating system, the languages we speak, our friends, our enemies. Choices we don’t even think about because if we did, our heads would explode.
Instead we use a faculty of the brain or body – what’s the difference? – which doesn’t even exist: intuition, or “the gut.” When we choose a career and when we choose to get married, it’s not because we know that we want this job or that person more than all others for the rest of our life. That’s impossible to know. It’s because we believe we’ll be happier if we eliminate the very possibility of choice from here on out.
There are three cafes here in Caracas where I have my morning coffee, palmera or cachito de jamón, and read the newspaper. They are: Coma, el CELARG, and the plaza of el Museo Bellas Artes. I go to these places because they are, by now, familiar. I know what to expect.
But every morning that I return to these three places I also realize that I’m not giving a chance to the other hundreds or thousands of cafes around Caracas. So this morning I chose choice over familiarity. I hopped on metro line 3 and got off where everyone else did – Ciudad Universitaria as it turned out – put on my iPod, and started walking until I found a cafe I liked. Coming out of the metro station, I was faced with a red and yellow mural of Che. Below his iconic portrait were the words “the university doesn’t belong to anyone.” And opposite the mural were about five or six booths – surrounded by Levis-wearing students – selling pirated copies of the latest DVD’s from Hollywood and CD’s of American pop music.
45 minutes later I was still walking. By this point I passed two busy McDonalds and a number of crowded indoor mini-malls. But I couldn’t find a single mom-and-pop’s bakery or cafe. I was reminded of a conversation I had with Luis Carlos just a couple days ago. We had met at one major shopping mall in Chacao only to take motorcycle taxis across town to another major shopping mall where we met with a group of bloggers on our way to a party.
Walking through the second mall’s main corridor Luis Carlos said, “you know, all these malls, they’re all new. They didn’t even exist a couple years ago. Centro San Ignacio, Sambil, el Recreo, this one, all of them are new.”
I commented on how crowded they always were.
“Yeah, because they’ve replaced the plazas and the small stores and the markets. People come here because they’re safe, and clean, and … because everyone else comes here.”
And, because they are familiar. Every mall in Caracas has the same stores with the same layouts. The same restaurants with the same menus. The same food-courts with the same combo meals. You go to a mall, any mall, and you know what you like and what you don’t. There’s no anxiety of whether you should order the pasticho de pollo or filet de atún at some hole-in-the-wall restaurant because you already know that the combo #4 super-sized is for you and you know that it will taste exactly the same every single time. There are no “bad days” at McDonalds.
Or as Megan McArdle puts it:
Standardization reduces volatility. I won’t have the highs – I’ll never have the really great meals at Olive Garden, but I also won’t have a really bad meal.
She said that on a brilliant episode of Christopher Lydon’s Open Source podcast. This particular show, “The End of Free Will,” was named after Clay Shirky’s recent fascinating essay, and deals in part with why we have abandoned independent cafes, restaurants, boutiques, and bookstores in favor of Starbucks, the Cheesecake Factory, Forever 21, and Barnes and Noble.
Both Jim Leff and Clay Shirky place the blame not on the consumer, but rather, manipulative nuero-marketing and brand-awareness by major chains. Each day we need to make thousands and thousands of choices, more than our brains could ever handle, but when we see the familiar green mermaid of Starbucks or freckly face of Wendy’s we’re immediately drawn in, unconsciously, because our brains know, “here is a familiar place, a place where I know what to order, how to order, how to pronounce it.” And we choose the ease of familiarity – despite the mediocre food – over the risk of novelty and uncertainty and potential regret.
I can certainly understand their argument. When Baja Fresh first came out in San Diego – when it was still it’s own small chain – I was an immediate fan. Here’s a place with real grilled chicken, quality ingredients, fresh and unlimited salsa. It didn’t taste like fast food and yet, when I was in a hurry, I could run in, grab a $5 burrito, and run out 20 minutes later. Then, they suckered me. I see their logo and I go in, not because I really want a Baja Fresh burrito, but because I think I do. And they’re not $5 anymore. They’re about $7, which is more expensive than the lunch specials at a lot of really great independent Thai, Mexican, French, Vietnamese … hell, a whole slew of quality and independent restaurants around San Diego.
The third guest on the show, Megan McArdle, does more than just hold her own. By telling people that they are wrong in their choice of Burger King over their local french bistro, she argues, you’re making a value judgement. You may have different aesthetic or culinary preferences, but you can’t tell them they are wrong when they go to a fast food restaurant.
Passing by the second busy McDonalds as I heard this I wondered if she was right. Am I really choosing what is “best” or is my own preferred “brand” an independent cafe with the NY Times and the latest copy of the New Yorker? Furthermore, the “independent cafes” I used to love so much just 5 years ago now hardly exist. And where they do, they are mostly copy-cats of the big chains. I don’t see the same pride in quality of craftsmanship. What I see are plastic wrapped madeleines from Costco – because Starbucks consumers are familiar with them and because everyone is a Starbucks consumer – and a separate menu with more than a dozen kinds of frappuccinos.
Walking Down the Boulevard
Finally I reach – via my rambling, circuitous route – what appears to be a main thoroughfare of restaurants, bars, delis, and cafes. I spot one cafe/bakery with some good looking palmeras and a real espresso machine, but it’s absurdly dark inside and the tables are too close together. Another down the road has a comfortable ambience and air conditioning, but no espresso machine. Across the street is another with a bunch of college kids reading outside. It looks like a good choice and my stomach is starting to rumble with hunger. But eyeing further down the boulevard, I can’t help but wonder if something even better awaits.
And it occurs to me, isn’t this how we make all our choices? Aren’t we always walking down the boulevard, keeping our eyes out for what’s best while wondering if something even better might lie ahead? When do we decide to stop? When do we know that we’ve made a good choice based on all that we’ve seen and all that we haven’t?
Eventually I settled on a cafe that had both fresh palmeras and an espresso machine. My palmera was dry and too flaky, but my cafe marrón (a macchiato) was heavenly. I sat outside and started reading the newspaper, occasionally glancing over at the passerby. Bolivia and Venezuela have signed a military pact to construct military bases around the Bolivian border, the Chilean paper El Mercurio discovered. The “Social Responsibility” supplement had an article on a solar energy project in the Amacuro Delta. Maybe I’ll translate the article to English and post it on the blog, I thought to myself. And I wondered if the other cafe a few blocks back – the one with all the college kids hanging out in front – would have been a better choice.
Who knows. There’s no way to. I take comfort in that. I feel the caffeine take to my bloodstream. I open my notebook and I start to write.