The Paradox of Choice

On my move, I had lots of time in the car in which to listen to music, think, and try to ignore Aria's backseat yowling. To help pass the time and keep me awake, I downloaded a bunch of TED Talks onto my iPod. They were an eclectic mix, from anthropology to physics, but they kept me awake and alert for many hours.

One that left a lingering impression in my brain was a talk by Barry Schwartz, author of the book "The Paradox of Choice." I've blogged on the book before, but there was a brief phrase in the talk that really caught my attention. Schwartz was talking about buying jeans, and how many years ago there was only one style of jeans, and they fit very badly. More recently, Schwartz went out to buy a new pair of jeans because his old ones had worn out, and he found a mind-boggling array of jeans from which to choose. Ultimately, he did find a pair that fit better than before, but with such variety available, any issues with how his jeans fit was his problem, not the jeans'.

Let me try to explain this better. If you can only choose from one style of jeans, and they don't fit very well, you are more likely to blame the ill-fitting jeans than the size of your butt. But it's your only choice, so if you want jeans, you deal with the wonky fit. But when there are stonewashed and acid washed jeans, "skinny," tapered, straight, boyfriend, bootcut, and flare legs, when you have very low rise, low rise, mid-rise, at the waist, and above the waist cut, when you can opt for the "slimming silhouette," when the choices seem endless but you still can't find a decent pair of jeans (c'mon ladies, this has happened to EVERYONE), the problem doesn't seem like the jeans but more like the size of your butt--or thighs or waist or hips.

I'm not keen on having to choose. I ate the same cereal for breakfast for over two years because I couldn't choose anything different. I am still terrified of the cereal aisle at the grocery store, not because I consider cereal a "fear food," but because there are just so many things to choose from. It totally paralyzes me. Am I getting the right cereal? Is there something I might like more? Is there something at a better price? Does this cereal have too much sugar? Is the extra two grams of fiber per serving worth a dollar extra at checkout? Is extra protein worth the extra price? What about 20 fewer calories per serving- is that worth the extra dollar? What about less salt?

The cereal I was eating wasn't particularly cheap (though it wasn't particularly expensive, either), and I had already made my choice. So I grabbed the cereal and that was that. No choice necessary. I was so overwhelmed by having to choose that I avoided the choice altogether.

Sometimes when trying to choose a snack, I'll face the same paralyzing anxiety. What should I have? And, if left to my own devices, I've been known to skip a snack not because I was wanting to restrict, but simply because I couldn't decide what to have. Choosing the food--choosing to eat--was easily more overwhelming than the actual act of eating.

The solution, says Schwartz, is not no choice at all, because a long history of despotism and repression shows that people are willing to die for their right to choose government, the course of their lives, you name it. The solution is more limited choice. Not "what do you want to drink?" but "do you want apple juice or orange juice?" Lots of choice, in and of itself, isn't necessarily bad, but for those of us who find choice overwhelming, the task is to lower the anxiety of choosing without over-limiting our options in life.

Below is the whole 20 minute talk by Barry Schwartz. You can download the audio version on iTunes (just search for TED Talks). He's a great speaker.

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Amy said...

LOVE TED talks. Like, endlessly.

I suck at small choices. Like grocery stores or where to sit in a room of people or what to wear. But I make big choices really well. Move to another state? Gone. Go to school? There. Life is weird.

(Also, speaking of jeans, I no longer choose because I found the Best Jeans Ever. BJE = curvy cut from Express, so I can fit my butt/thighs without having a moat around my waist. LOVE.)

Glad you made it safely to VA, and totally can't wait to see you hopefully. (I know I owe you an e-mail; I'll probably FB message you when the time gets closer.)

end longest, random comment ever

Anonymous said...

My goodness, Carrie. I don't know how many times I've tried to explain this to my mom, but she just doesn't get it, and she thinks I'm being dramatic or manipulative or giving into the eating disorder or bad habits or whatever else. It's so frustrating!

This is one of the reasons it is so damn hard to get back to "healthy eating" when I do have the energy and motivation to want to. If I had someone maybe to cook for me the same or similar things day after day without me having to choose, or at least plan it for me or shop for me, or choose for me or make some part of the decision for me, then I might have done better than I have. But I always start with, "What do I want to have for breakfast on Monday?" And I fall apart. Because should I have cereal or eggs or toast or oatmeal or pancakes or fruit? I'm getting slightly panicky even now, just typing that. So stupid, but I can't help it. And I never eat fruit anymore, not because I don't like it, but there's too much to choose from. I love fruit, and I wish I could eat it again, but do I want an apple or an orange or grapes or a white peach or strawberries?

I only make/choose the same few foods. A salad (made one way), shredded wheat with skim milk, things like that... Too many choices give stress, and I end up saying "Never mind, never mind! I'll go without, I'd much rather."

But what you said about the difference between saying, "What do you want to drink?" and, "Do you want apple juice or orange juice?" So true! I cannot choose anything if you ask me open-endedly, I can't! But I feel so much safer if you let me choose between two.

How can I say this to my mom, to let her understand this better, and not think it's just another manipulation solely of the eating disorder? She worries about me, but has a hard time trusting some things I say, because she used to work in a psych unit years ago, so has become hardened to "eating disordered manipulations." I want her trust, but I want less anxiety around food, too. There needs to be a balance. How can I word this? Do you have any ideas?

Thank you.

I Hate to Weight said...

i don't even like jeans -- they're so uncomfortable, particularly if you choose to sit down. i don't understand how people say they could live in jeans. i like pants that stretch or preferably, summer dresses, which is why i want to move somewhere warm.

seeing as how i don't like jeans, you can imagine how i feel about foods that just don't fit me. my persnickety grandfather ate wheat germ on fruit and cottage cheese every day of his life, and lived to be 94. why can't i have my oatmeal every day?

Katie said...

I feel like I'm becoming a broken record, but again, I really relate to this topic. One of the reasons I liked being vegetarian when I was dating my last boyfriend (I am still veggie now but minus the boy!) was that it reduced the number of choices I had when eating out. This was nothing to do with calories - I would happily eat cheese infested vegetarian lasagnes and the like as long as I was between ED relapses - it was purely because I have such a hard time choosing when there are more than a couple of possibilities. Most of the people I know have eating disorders so I'm not sure if this is a common issue in people with mental health problems or just a common issue for humans in general, but it is frustrating either way!

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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