mad anthony

Rants, politics, and thoughts on politics, technology, life,
and stuff from a generally politically conservative Baltimoron.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The choice is yours..

I've heard various allusions to the book The Paradox of Choice - a guy who claims that there are too many choices in the world, and it overwhelms us. He had done experiments where, for example , people had to pick a favorite jam from a selection of 6 or 24, and fewer people could pick a favorite from the 24 because they were overcome by the amount of choices.

I always rejected this idea - after all, I'm a big believer in the free market. If people didn't want choices, they would just buy the same stuff, and new products would go unpurchased, and companies wouldn't come out with anything new. The fact that there are so many products suggests that somebody buys them.

Yesterday, however, I had one of those experiences where I wondered if mass customization was getting a little too custom. I had some time to kill and a craving for a Chic-fil-a breakfast biscuit, so I pulled through the drive thru. After getting my food and large coffee from the perky blond teen behind the window, she asked me if I wanted creamer for my coffee. I said yes, and she asked me what kind. It threw me. Sure, some places have those flavored creamers, but I've never been asked what kind of creamer I wanted at a drive-thru before. It threw me, and it took me a few seconds to stammer out a. "umm, regular".

But of course, I'm not any worse off for having more choices, and meanwhile someone who loves Irish Creme coffeemate is probably thrilled to be offered a choice.

Last week, I had another choice experience. I did something I haven't done in a long time - shopped at a different grocery store. I generally alternate between Trader Joe's, where I go for certain foods they have (they have some great frozen chinese food that's reasonably healthy) and Giant - I got into the habit of shopping at Giant in college - I lived in the city, and it was the closest decent grocery store - Baltimore City doesn't have a whole lot of major chain grocery stores. So when I moved to the county, I continued to shop at Giant, especially since there is one right around the corner from me. However, I've had trouble finding a few items, plus I've been less than thrilled with their service, or the moldy loaf of bread they sold me. My friend bsom has waxed enthusiastically about the Food Lion around the corner from him, so I decided to give it a try. In some ways, they were better, and they had a few things that Giant didn't, like bagged saurkraut, but they also didn't have certain things I liked - like my favorite pasta sauce, Barillia Arribitia hot pepper (that, served over whole wheat pasta, is a great way to do a little spring cleaning of the lower intestine).

But that's the way I shop - there are some things (like pasta sauce) that I have strong preferences about. But other things - bread, lunch meat, toilet paper - I don't care as much about, and I'll buy whatever is on sale and/or I have a coupon for. Most people are probably like this - they have things they are passionate about in certain catagories, and ones they don't care about. So one person may stick with Miller Light and another may be studying the IPA section, while person one may really care what kind of toothpaste they use. Choice means that when it comes to the things you are passionate about, you can get the perfect item - but as a cost for that, you may have to look a little harder on the shelf for stuff you don't care about - or scratch your head in the Chick-fil-a drive thru when they ask you what kind of creamer you want.

I had the idea for this post sketched in my head, but when I started typing it, I googled the whole jam thing - and came up with this two year old Reason Mag article, which ways a lot of the same things I said, but better and more in detail.


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