22 January 2010

Too Many Choices May Be Unhealthy, Psychologists Suggest

...also see Barry Goldstein's TED Talk on The Paradox of Choice

Reposted in full from Scientific Blogging, 19 January 2010

'Thanks to capitalism and a cultural heritage of individual freedom, Americans enjoy just about ever modern convenience imaginable and do almost anything they want. But, according to psychologists from Standford University and Swarthmore College, the amount of choice that results from such a decadent lifestyle may be unhealthy. The researchers say that too many choices cause Americans to ignore how the rest of the world feels about choice and may even make us selfish and depressed.

In their Journal of Consumer Research study, the authors explain that this emphasis on choice and freedom is not universal.

"The picture presented by a half-century of research may present an accurate picture of the psychological importance of choice, freedom, and autonomy among middle-class, college-educated Americans, but this is a picture that leaves about 95 percent of the world's population outside its frame," the authors write.

The team reviewed a body of research surrounding the cultural ideas surrounding choice. They found that among non-Western cultures and among working-class Westerners, freedom and choice are less important or mean something different than they do for the university-educated people who have participated in psychological research on choice."And even what counts as a 'choice' may be different for non-Westerners than it is for Westerners," the authors write.

"Moreover, the enormous opportunity for growth and self-advancement that flows from unlimited freedom of choice may diminish rather than enhance subjective well-being."

People can become paralyzed by unlimited choice, and find less satisfaction with their decisions. Choice can also foster a lack of empathy, the authors found, because it can focus people on their own preferences and on themselves at the expense of the preferences of others and of society as a whole.

"We cannot assume that choice, as understood by educated, affluent Westerners, is a universal aspiration, and that the provision of choice will necessarily foster freedom and well-being," the authors write.

"Even in contexts where choice can foster freedom, empowerment, and independence, it is not an unalloyed good. Choice can also produce a numbing uncertainty, depression, and selfishness."'

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