Americans train their whole lives to play “spot the difference.” They practice this from such an early age that they’ve come to believe that everyone must be born with this ability.
In fact, though all humans share a basic need and desire for choice, we don’t all see choice in the same places or to the same extent. When someone can’t see how one choice is unlike another, or when there are too many choices to compare and contrast, the process of choosing can be confusing and frustrating.
Instead of making better choices, we become overwhelmed by choice, sometimes even afraid of it. Choice no longer offers opportunities, but imposes constraints. It’s not a marker of liberation, but of suffocation by meaningless minutiae.
In other words, choice can develop into the very opposite of everything it represents in America when it is thrust upon those who are insufficiently prepared for it.
But it is not only other people in other places that are feeling the pressure of ever-increasing choice. Americans themselves are discovering that unlimited choice seems more attractive in theory than in practice.
We all have physical, mental and emotional limitations that make it impossible for us to process every single choice we encounter, even in the grocery store, let alone over the course of our entire lives.
A number of my studies have shown that when you give people 10 or more options when they’re making a choice, they make poorer decisions, whether it be health care, investment, other critical areas.
Yet still, many of us believe that we should make all our own choices and seek out even more of them.
This brings me to the third, and perhaps most problematic, assumption: “You must never say no to choice.”
To examine this, let’s go back to the U.S. and then hop across the pond to France.
Right outside Chicago, a young couple, Susan and Daniel Mitchell, were about to have their first baby. They’d already picked out a name for her, Barbara, after her grandmother.
One night, when Susan was seven months pregnant, she started to experience contractions and was rushed to the emergency room. The baby was delivered through a C-section, but Barbara suffered cerebral anoxia, a loss of oxygen to the brain. Unable to breathe on her own, she was put on a ventilator.
Two days later, the doctors gave the Mitchells a choice: They could either remove Barbara off the life support, in which case she would die within a matter of hours, or they could keep her on life support, in which case she might still die within a matter of days.
If she survived, she would remain in a permanent vegetative state, never able to walk, talk or interact with others. What do they do? What do any parent do?
In a study I conducted with Simona Botti and Kristina Orfali, American and French parents were interviewed. They had all suffered the same tragedy. In all cases, the life support was removed, and the infants had died.
But there was a big difference. In France, the doctors decided whether and when the life support would be removed, while in the United States, the final decision rested with the parents.
We wondered: does this have an effect on how the parents cope with the loss of their loved one? We found that it did.
Even up to a year later, American parents were more likely to express negative emotions, as compared to their French counterparts. French parents were more likely to say things like, “Noah was here for so little time, but he taught us so much. He gave us a new perspective on life.”
American parents were more likely to say things like, “What if? What if?”
Another parent complained, “I feel as if they purposefully tortured me. How did they get me to do that?”
And another parent said, “I feel as if I’ve played a role in an execution.”
But when the American parents were asked if they would rather have had the doctors make the decision, they all said, “No.”
They could not imagine turning that choice over to another, even though having made that choice made them feel trapped, guilty, angry.
In a number of cases they were even clinically depressed. These parents could not contemplate giving up the choice, because to do so would have gone contrary to everything they had been taught and everything they had come to believe about the power and purpose of choice.
In her essay, “The White Album,” Joan Didion writes:
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the idea with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria, which is our actual experience.”
The story Americans tell, the story upon which the American dream depends, is the story of limitless choice. This narrative promises so much: freedom, happiness, success. It lays the world at your feet and says, “You can have anything, everything.”
It’s a great story, and it’s understandable why they would be reluctant to revise it.
But when you take a close look, you start to see the holes, and you start to see that the story can be told in many other ways. Americans have so often tried to disseminate their ideas of choice, believing that they will be, or ought to be, welcomed with open hearts and minds.