Sunday, June 28, 2009

Choices vs. lack thereof

This week I am on a whistle stop tour of the US to visit friends and family and to stock up on all the consumer goods I miss from the States. I spend most of my time visiting and eating and shopping - literally gorging myself on company and consumables until I can’t see straight.

I love a good shop, me. But since I have been living away from the US, every time I return for a supermarket sweep, I am left with a sense of emptiness. To be more precise, my suitcases are full and my wallet less so, but there has been a strange shift for me when revisiting the United States of Shopping. I feel like there is too. much. choice.

Don’t get me wrong – I like to sort through 22 fits and 17 colors of a pair of jeans at the mall. At least I used to. Now, though, the thought of shopping fills me with a sense of anxiety and dread. When I go to Houston, I usually only stay three or four days before moving on to somewhere else. Because I know where the shops are in H-town, I do a mad circular dash from the Galleria to Target to the outlet malls to Central Market, frantically shoving things into shopping bags until I want to slit my wrists with a credit card. There’s too many colors, sizes, fits, washes, fabrics. Just too much everything. Ten years ago this cornucopia of ‘too much’ would’ve been music to my ears. Today it is just sensory overload. How did this happen?

According to psychology professor Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, choice and satisfaction are inversely related. The more choice you have, the less satisfied you are. This seemed counter-intuitive to me, but after some reflection, I think I get what Schwartz is on about.

Let’s say on my bi-annual Target run I am stocking up on dryer sheets (Seriously, I do. They’re cheap and easy to pack and good for a multitude of things). If I have 20 choices of dryer sheets (There really are that many.. at least!), I have 20 opportunities to feel I picked the lesser option. I can have mountain fresh scent OR I can have easy iron. But I can’t have both. Now I WANT both, so I am dissatisfied with each individual option. This cycle repeats until I have exhausted the 18 other options and am left, broken and teary in the aisle of Target, wishing I hadn’t selected the onerous task of choosing dryer sheets.

In Norway it’s a different story. I go to one of the only two stores that even sell dyer sheets, I walk to the aisle where the dryer sheets live, and I pluck a box and put it in my basket. Done and dusted with no drama or gnashing of teeth. I don’t know what super fancy options my dryer sheets possess, but it doesn’t matter as it’s the only option I have. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that I wouldn’t like a little MORE choice in Norway sometimes, but the lack thereof makes my life a hell of a lot simpler. It leaves me space to focus on the choices that do matter and less on the ones that just don’t.

I’m certain this seems melodramatic, but for anyone who's ever lived for an extended time away from home, you might be able to relate to what I'm talking about. Most expatriates complain about the lack of choice in Norway – they do this in the same tone of voice as discussing a dirty hotel room or a less than gracious dinner guest. But I think this lack of choice is something that should be embraced (mainly because, let’s face it, there’s sod all you can do about it).

If I don’t have 6,000 choices of where to go to dinner (fact check it – that’s how many eating holes there are in Houston!), then I worry less about picking a place and instead focus on enjoying the company I keep while I gnosh away. If I don’t have 1,428 choices for body lotion (the number of options you find on, then I choose one of the 10 options I do have, slather myself up, and get on with life.

None of this is to say I am overly enlightened. I still like to have a good moan about all the things I can’t buy in Norway as well as the lack of options when I do have to make a purchase. But it does mean that, after living in Europe for almost a decade, I realize there is not one single consumer good I can’t live without.

That all being said, I will still participate in the twice-a-year shopfest when I go to the US. But on a day-to-day basis back home in Norway, I will secretly relish that I can reserve my decision-making skills for more substantiative things. Like when to go back to Houston for more shopping.


  1. I love the real facts. And you make good points. Personally I've always been a little overwhelmed by the cereal aisle. (That's within the US, as well. In NYC the grocery stores are small and there are not nearly the choices. In Gainesville or Atlanta, the cereal aisle goes for miles and freaks me out a bit. And is completely the feeling you are describing...I do the math of "best value" combined with "tastiest choice" and am always dissatisfied and end up just grabbing one and running like hell to get out of there.)

    But I would still love a Target.

  2. Thanks for reminding me that simple is best Jen. I am right now in the process of "buying" for our annual shipment. Wouldn't it be so simple to go to one place that had a few options of each and get it over with in one trip? I would kill for that. At the moment I have to go to 10 different places and have to deal with 20 choices from each item on my list. This is going to take days....

  3. I spit out my knekkebrød (of which there is a dizzying selection at the Helgø grocery shop) when you mentioned the dryer sheets in Target! I too have sat there dazed and frustrated trying to decide between lavender or no-odor, brand or brand-X. When I brought the selection back to Norway, we had moved again, and this time we had no dryer. So I put them in jacket pockets before i store them for what is known here as "summer" instead.

    I think the overwhelming feeling you have is that you have to choose RIGHT, and have so little time to pack your US items for another 6 months in Norway. It no easy task anticipating all of the things you will wish you had gotten. Recalling later standing in the aisle and wishing you had grabbed a pie tin, not doing it, and then finding out that you can't get a pie tin here. And then thinking you won't be able to bring enough back to last you anyway, so it will be constant rationing of said items, which is no fun.
    If you lived in Houston you wouldn't have as much pressure to choose right.

  4. ECD, I would still kill for a Target, too!

    Anon, I am beginning to find that there's nothing I can't live without, so it makes the desperacy of the bi-annual buy-a-thon less frantic. Sometimes simple IS best!

    EL, I think it is less the pressure to choose 'right' and more the pressure to choose at all! The less pressure we place on ourselves to choose between an unrealistic number of options, the more satisfied we will be with any outcome. I see the same issue with friends still living here in the US so I don't think it's isolated to expats. (And, oh, the pie tin! Thank goodness I finally got one so I could stop using the flan dish!)

  5. Just happened to read this, very interesting (BTW I'm German).
    In case you are interested, there is a video online of a presentation by a psychology professor named Barry Schwartz. He talks about his findings regarding the problem of too many choices and how it can affect people's lives. If you want to search for it on Google Video or Youtube, it it part of the "TED conference" series.

  6. Thanks for reading, Anon! Schwartz is the author of the book I mention in this post (The Paradox of Choice), and I bet to hear this topic discussed by him 'in person' would be very interesting. Thanks for letting me know about the video link!