Maximize choice. According to the official dogma of all Western industrial societies, this is the way to maximize human welfare.
Social psychologist Barry Schwartz summarizes it this way in his book “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less”: “If we are interested in maximizing the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximize individual freedom. The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice. The more choice people have, the more freedom they have. And the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have.”
In America, choice is ubiquitous. It pervades every aspect of life, from the trivial to the eternal. Shopping. Housing. Religion. The number of choices in each of these areas has increased exponentially over the last 30 years, yet clinical depression and suicide have also increased exponentially over that same period.
Why? If we have more choices than we have ever had in every aspect of life, why are we less satisfied and more depressed than previous generations?
Sometimes, Less Is Better
According to Schwartz, we mistakenly think that choice is an unmitigated good, thus the answer to every problem in modern society has become “more choices.” If having a choice of five salad dressings is good, then having a choice of 175 salad dressings must be better. Right?
Wrong. Schwartz began studying the issue of the psychological consequences of choice after he went to buy a new pair of jeans for the first time in years. When he arrived, the salesperson began peppering him with questions about the style and fit he was seeking: Slim fit, easy fit, or relaxed fit? Zipper or button fly? Acid-washed or stone-washed? Boot-cut or tapered? Distressed or undistressed? The list went on and on.
Schwartz was immediately overwhelmed with the number of choices. He spent the next hour trying on jeans. Ultimately, Schwartz left the store with the best-fitting pair of jeans that he had ever owned. He did better. But he felt worse. Schwartz wanted to know why.
After years of research, Schwartz discovered that while some choice is good, too much choice can have devastating consequences. The first consequence is paralysis. When faced with too many choices, people simply refuse to make a choice. For example, one study of investments in voluntary retirement plans showed that for every 10 mutual funds offered by an employer, the rate of participation by its employees went down by 2 percent.
In other words, if an employer offers 50 funds in its plan, 10 percent fewer employees participate than if the employer only offered five funds. This is true even if the employer offers matching funds, so employees are literally giving up free money from their employers (potentially thousands of dollars per year) simply because they have too many choices.
Choice Is Best Within Limits
The second consequence of too much choice is decreased satisfaction. Those who are able to overcome the paralysis and make a choice still experience less satisfaction with their choice. This is true because having a large number of choices increases your expectations regarding the potential outcome of the choice. As such, it is easy to imagine that you could have made a better choice. Thus, you regret your decision even if it was a good decision.
In sum, Schwartz found that too much choice actually makes us less free and less satisfied, not more. As a result, Schwartz concluded that choice within constraint is essential. But choice without constraint is paralyzing, and it decreases our psychological welfare.
Schwartz wrote his book 15 years ago. Since then, the number of choices available to us has only increased. These choices are also not limited to the mundane, such as jeans or salad dressing. Today, we are told we even have the choice to define our very identity—that we can even choose our own gender separate from our biological sex.
Increased Gender Choices Only Increases Confusion
We are told that gender is not constrained by biology. Rather, gender is a spectrum, constrained only by your imagination and desire. We are told that parents should allow their children to choose their own sex, rather than simply recognize their true biological sex. We are told that this increased choice will be liberating and will lead to increased satisfaction for those struggling with their own identity. Sound familiar?
Not surprisingly, as predicted by Schwartz, telling a person who is struggling with his own identity that he has complete autonomy to define himself in whatever manner he chooses (i.e., untethering gender from biological sex) tends to increase rather than decrease his confusion and suffering.
This was vividly illustrated in a heartbreaking op-ed published at the end of last year in The New York Times titled “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy. And It Shouldn’t Have To.” It was written by Andrea Long Chu, a biological male, just a week before he was scheduled for a surgery that would remove his penis and convert it into a vagina.
He begins: “Next Thursday, I will get a vagina. The procedure will last around six hours, and I will be in recovery for at least three months. Until the day I die, my body will regard the vagina as a wound; as a result, it will require regular, painful attention to maintain. This is what I want, but there is no guarantee it will make me happier. In fact, I don’t expect it to. That shouldn’t disqualify me from getting it.”
Chu argues that he should be able to choose this surgery even if it will not decrease his dysphoria or mental suffering. In fact, Chu admits that, since beginning hormone treatments, he often has thoughts of suicide, which he never had before. And his dysphoria has increased, rather than decreased, yet Chu insists on proceeding because: choice.
As humans, we are at a crossroads. Do we choose the path where the freedom to shape our identity is untethered to anything, even basic biology? Or do we choose the path where we are free to shape our identity but within the reality of biology?
After all, we have a choice.