It was one of those weekend mornings. I had many things to do in and around the house but given the option of “let’s go out for breakfast,” or stay in to catch up with my responsibilities, I chose to go out for a real American breakfast at a diner close to home. As I placed my order in between questions of “how would you like your eggs cooked?, bacon, ham or sausage?, cottage fried potatoes or hash brown?, wheat, white, rye or sourdough toast?” I couldn’t help but laugh as I recalled my first time in the United States (some thirty eight years ago) when I was first introduced to the multiple choices and decision making process of ordering toast. At the time I had stared the waitress in the face, completely confounded, not having understood that I had choices of different breads available and had to pick a) b) c) or d). I disliked multiple choice questions during school and college and there I was at a diner being given a multiple choice of breads. After much hesitation and debate, I remember picking b) wheat, feeling somewhat unsure not knowing if I had made the right choice, and then suddenly feeling quite smug that perhaps I had made the right choice because the waitress had smiled and had said “excellent choice,” as though there was a right or wrong answer to her question of my choice.
Therein started my exposure to the many consumer choices I had to make. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that we didn’t have choices presented to us in our days of decision making that guided our lives and built our futures. We had that, and to top it all, we had the added responsibility of being aware of our God given free will to make choices and be held morally responsible for our actions. We just never were that inundated with the plethora of choices in the market as is available today. And I’m not quite sure that having all these choices available is actually to our advantage. Our brains, already over-worked and exhausted, cannot cope with too many choices, at least mine can’t. We’re asked if we want small, medium or large; full fat, non-fat, half & half, soy or almond milk; vanilla, strawberry or chocolate; skinny, bootleg, boyfriend or bellbottom. Americans have come to expect a wide array of choices, and most companies, be they car companies, clothiers or coffee shops, have been more than willing to pony up. But more choices do not always equate to happier consumers.
Actually, a study published in 2008 by the American Psychology Association claimed that being presented with too many options stresses our brain. It gives it too many things to compare, and the problem is, that we simply don’t have the time to research or investigate all of them… and then we feel like we have failed. It is not that we are saddened by the decisions we make in the face of abundant options, but rather that we are rendered unsure, burdened by the responsibility of choosing optimally. In fact, some studies show that having to make too many decisions can leave us tired, mentally drained and more dissatisfied with our purchases. It also leads us to make poorer choices — sometimes at a crossroad when the choice really matters.
For earlier generations, the ideal of making well-informed decisions meant simply looking things up in a reference book. Today, with Twitter and Facebook and countless apps fed into our smart phones, the flow of facts and opinion never stops. That can be a good thing, as when information empowers workers and consumers, not to mention whistle-blowers and revolutionaries. Yet, researchers from several universities have determined that even though humans’ ability to weigh choices is remarkably advantageous, it can also come with some serious liabilities. People faced with numerous choices, whether good or bad, find it difficult to stay focused enough to complete projects and handle daily tasks.
That an excess of choices and a surplus of information is changing the way we think, and not always for the better, is a truth. That there are no wrong or right answers to the choices we make; there are only consequences to our choices and actions, especially in the bigger picture of life, is yet another truth. But where does that leave me with my choice of breakfast bread?
“I’ll have option e) English muffin,” I said. “Excellent choice,” said the waiter.