The Freedom of Choice
When we walk into an average supermarket or electronics store and are unsure of the exact product we want, we may find ourselves go through the same few stages of contemplation before making our selection: scan through the immense variety of products, pick one that seems to match our needs, purchase it, and then immediately wonder if one of the other brands may have been a better choice. Of course, if the brand we chose turns out to be mediocre, we cannot help but regret not choosing one of the other ones. After all, we think, there were so many options to choose from that at least one of the other brands must have been better than the one we just purchased. This depiction of more choice creating more problems is what Barry Schwartz illustrates in his essay “The Tyranny of Choice,” which attempts to derail society’s misconception that increased choice can lead to increased well-being. While Schwartz raises a valid point about how more choice can be overwhelming and lead to unhappiness at times, his argument fails to address how other major factors, such as increased obesity, reduced physical activity, and greater social disparity, have also contributed to increased unhappiness. Neglecting to acknowledge the positive effects that increased choice may have in the academic environment also weakens his essay. Schwartz’s failure to address these factors ultimately prevents his essay from remaining well-balanced, especially when his claims are compared to more recent data.
Schwartz asserts that our “material abundance has not brought with it an increase in subjective well-being” (Schwartz 721). Instead, he contends that “increased affluence” may be a contributor to an increase in clinical depression and part of the reason why people are now “increasingly unhappy” (Schwartz 721). However, Schwartz refuses to consider other factors of modernity that have also led to a greater prevalence of depression. In introducing his claim, Schwartz lists data to illustrate how clinical depression has increased by a factor of 10 between 1900 and 2000, suicide rates have also increased, and that 14 million fewer Americans today describe themselves as “very happy” compared to thirty years ago (Schwartz 721). However, following these data Schwartz incorrectly maintains that the reasons for the general trend of unhappiness is because of the increase in choice, and that “increased choice can lead to decreased well-being” (Schwartz 722). The portrayal of choice as one of the major perpetrators for growing depression and suicide rates largely ignores the major effects of obesity, physical activity, and a changing social environment that have arisen because of modernity (Hidaka). While in 1990 only 15% of the U.S. population was obese, today that number has increased to 69% percent (“An Epidemic of Obesity”). Obese individuals are 55% more likely to develop depression compared to individuals of normal weight, demonstrating that there is more than the burden of too much choice that has increased depression rates (Hidaka). Furthermore, with increased sedentary jobs in the United States, 37.6% of the population today is considered to be “completely inactive,” which is unsettling because physical activity reduces depressive symptoms (Hidaka). In the United States, modernity has also brought increases in wage inequality since the 1970’s, allowing the average income of the top one percent to quadruple in the last thirty years (“A Guide to Statistics”). The results of this changing social environment include increased stress, social distrust, and status anxiety (Hidaka). In sum, modernization in recent years has increased depression rates, but choice overload is not the sole culprit.
Additionally, Schwartz argues that increased choices in universities is detrimental for students. He claims that today “the chances that any two students have significant intellectual experiences in common are much reduced” since universities do not enforce a “core curriculum” that determines the classes all students must take for the first two years (Schwartz 723). In describing how a “core curriculum” allows for shared intellectual experiences with fellow students, Schwartz asks “What are the odds [today] that two random students will have courses in common to discuss?” (Schwartz 724). This point is unsettling because Schwartz seems to be suggesting that intellectual experiences are what students can only discuss to have a shared experience. In fact, it is unfair to ignore that increased differences amongst students, both in terms of extracurricular and intellectual experiences, can be more rewarding than simply discussing shared experiences. Differences between students stimulates conversation as each student is unlikely to be familiar with an interest that is different from their own. Thus, an increase in choice for extracurricular and curricular activities diversifies the student body so that everyone does not come out of the college experience as being “the same.”
Schwartz’s contention that the “liberation” of the American university experience—that is, the lack of restriction in selecting courses—makes many students worse off is not necessarily true when compared to universities in other countries. Japan, for instance, does not follow the trend of having decreased happiness because of increased choice. In general, universities in the United States allow students to take a broad variety of classes, something that Schwartz dubs an “intellectual shopping mall” (Schwartz 720). If education offered at American universities is broad and varied, then Japanese universities offer academic content that is “narrow and deep” in comparison (Wieczorek 105). Thus, the limited academic options in Japan would suggest that Japanese students encounter less choice when selecting classes and are therefore “happier” than students in the United States. However, the 2014 suicide rates of individuals between the age of 20 to 24 provide a different perspective. While Japan’s suicide rate in this age group was approximately 41 per 100,000 people, the United States had a suicide rate of only 28 per 100,000 people (Snowdon et al. 15). In a broader sense, the World Happiness Report, which considers GDP per capita, social support, health life expectancy, and generosity to quantify happiness, also determined that the United States ranked as the thirteenth happiest country in the world while Japan only ranked at fifty-three (Helliwell 20). This is especially interesting considering GDP per capita, a measurement of well-being in a country, is very similar between these two countries. The United States ranks first as having the highest GDP per capita and Japan is ranked third (“GDP Ranking”). Yet, the 2014 suicide rates and the World Happiness Report state that Japan is, on paper, much less happy than the United States. Thus, Schwartz’s claim that more choice leads to decreased well-being and happiness seems to fall apart given the appropriate data.
Yet, Schwartz is not completely off-base in his concern of the effects of choice overload. He mentions that greater choice increases the “burden of gathering information,” the “likelihood that people will regret the decisions they make,” and “the feeling of missed opportunities,” all of which are true statements that anyone can relate to if they have ever purchased something at a grocery store or department store (Schwartz 723). Schwartz also makes a sound argument for the importance of social relations to enhance well-being. Technological usage has left less time for family and friend communication and an increase in the feeling of loneliness in Americans (Hidaka). Thus, Schwartz states that loneliness, which comes from lack of intimacy, is partly the result of having less time to spend with people because more time is spent making choices in other areas of our lives (Schwartz 726). On the surface, these assertions seem valid; however, in the context of Schwartz’s essay, these claims fall short.
This can be seen in one of Schwartz’s main points: universities are largely responsible for the creation of choice overload and therefore they should act to limit choice. He claims that college students would be better off with “choice within limits” to reduce the stress and anxiety that accompanies an abundance of options (Schwartz 726). But Schwartz neglects to mention the benefits of choice overload. Freshmen are not “locked in” to a career as they enter college because they are given the opportunity to explore other disciplines that they previously may not have been exposed to. There is a sense of security in knowing that if one potential career path does not work out, there is the possibility of choosing another one. Majors can be tailored for the student to accommodate for multiple interests. And perhaps most importantly, allowing first-year college students to choose their subjects for themselves instills a sense of independence and responsibility that prepares them for the “real world.”
College is often considered to be the bridge into the “real world.” Selecting classes and majors to explore potential career paths is an especially convenient method to practice future decision-making. While students may “lack the wisdom to choose intelligently” when there are real consequences, practicing in college is a safe place to start as the consequences are not as significant (Schwartz 724). Therefore, 70% of students are likely to change their major at least once, allowing them to learn how to responsibly decide a course of study and act independently from the influence of a parent or guardian (“Undergraduate Degree Fields”). Further, the decisions freshmen make about their major selection often do not even “affect them for the rest of their lives” (Schwartz 724). In fact, 73% of college graduates end up having a job that is unrelated to their college major, and it is not uncommon for medical and law students to get admitted into graduate schools with majors unrelated to their graduate program (Abel and Deitz).
Thus, the effect of increased choice is not a black-and-white matter but rather a subjective one as it can affect individuals differently. In some cases, an abundance of choice can be overwhelming and can increase the chance of regretting decisions more frequently. Yet in some other cases, having multiple options is a luxury and can be comforting when trying to make life decisions. Schwartz therefore does not present a sound argument for claiming choice overload to be a major cause of diminishing well-being. The relationship between reduced feelings of happiness and increased choices appears to be a correlation rather than a causation. Diminishing the positives of choice overload does not make sense today because that reduces the importance of learning how to deal with constant decision making. If choice was reduced to the point where decisions were made for us, we would not have much autonomy at all. In our current society, where the amount of options we have is only going to increase, it is more useful to learn how to deal with them sooner rather than later.
"An Epidemic of Obesity: U.S. Obesity Trends." The Nutrition Source. N.p., 12 Apr. 2016. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.
"GDP Ranking." GDP Ranking - Data. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2017.
"A Guide to Statistics on Historical Trends in Income Inequality." Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. N.p., 07 Nov. 2016. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.
"Undergraduate Degree Fields." The Condition of Education - Postsecondary Education - Programs, Courses, and Completions - Undergraduate Degree Fields - Indicator May (2016). National Center for Education Statistics, May 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.
Abel, Jason, and Richard Deitz. "Do Big Cities Help College Graduates Find Better Jobs?" Liberty Street Economics. Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 20 May 2013. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.
Helliwell, John F., Haifang Huang, and Shun Wang. "THE DISTRIBUTION OF WORLD HAPPINESS." World Happiness Report 2016 1.2 (2016): 9-27. World Happiness Report. Web. 3 Mar. 2017.
Hidaka, Brandon H. "Depression as a Disease of Modernity: Explanations for Increasing Prevalence." Journal of Affective Disorders. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nov. 2012. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.
Schwartz, Barry. "The Tyranny of Choice." The Writer's Presence: A Pool of Essays. Boston: Bedford, 1997. 720-27. Print.
Snowdon, John et al. “Changes in Age Patterns of Suicide in Australia, the United States, Japan and Hong Kong.” Journal of Affective Disorders 211 (2017): 12–19. ScienceDirect. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.
Wieczorek, Craig C. "Comparative Analysis of Educational Systems of American and Japanese Schools: Views and Visions." Japanese Colonial Education in Taiwan, 1895-1945 (2008): 99-105. Educational HORIZONS. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.