I first came across the term “option paralysis” in the spring of 1992 while reading Douglas Coupland‘s first novel, Generation X. I thought it was brilliant insight at the time. The intervening eighteen years have only reconfirmed my opinion. Coupland included dozens of neologisms in the book’s page margins. Most of the remain thought-provoking and relevant to me today. And I continue to find humor in the irony embedded in many of them. Some of my favorites include:

  • Option Paralysis : The tendency, when given unlimited choices, to make none.
  • Musical Hairsplitting : The act of classifying music and musicians into pathologically picayune categories: “The Vienna Franks are a good example of urban white acid folk revivalism crossed with ska.”
  • Knee-Jerk Irony : The tendency to make flippant ironic comments as a reflexive matter of course in everyday conversation.
  • Obscurism : The practice of peppering daily life with obscure references (forgotten films, dead TV stars, unpopular books, defunct countries, etc.) as a means of showcasing one’s education and one’s wish to disassociate from the world of mass culture.
  • Status Substitution : Using an object with intellectual or fashionable cachet to substitute for an object that is merely pricey: “Brian, you left your copy of Camus in your brother’s BMW.”
  • Ultra Short Term Nostalgia : Homesickness for the extremely recent past: “God, things seemd so much better in the world last week.”

In 2005, Barry Schwartz gave a TED Talk titled “The Paradox of Choice.” While I doubt he is referred to Douglas Coupland directly, it appears to me as if Schwartz expanded the idea of option paralysis from Coupland’s nine curt words into a nineteen minute talk. Schwartz explored the sociological ramifications of the central tenet of western societies: freedom of choice. I found it fascinating. When scanning the reactions and comments I think Schwartz is unfairly criticized for the talk being entirely negative with regards to options. The fulcrum lies almost eight minutes into the talk after Schwartz has introduced the topic and is about to head into the meat of the criticism. He says:

So everywhere we look, big things and small things, material things and lifestyle things, life is a matter of choice. And the world we used to live in looked like this. That is to say, there were some choices, but not everything was a matter of choice. And the world we now live in looks like this. And the question is, is this good news, or bad news? And the answer is yes.

During this section he produces two slides: cartoons from the New Yorker. The first — the summary of world we used to live in — is a cartoon of Moses holding the tablets, addressing the multitude: “Well, actually, they are written in stone.” The second — the summary of the world we live in now — is cartoon of blank tablets, hammer and chisel by its side: “The Ten Commandments Do-It-Yourself Kit.” The cartoons both illustrate his point and provide some levity. Watch the talk yourself to get the full effect.

The counterpoint I want to make to those who criticize the talk as entirely negative with respect to choice. I want to emphasize the last two sentences of that transitional paragraph: is freedom of choice good or bad? The answer is yes. Schwartz’ premise is that freedom of choice is both a positive and a negative force in our lives. He starts into his critique with the statement, “We all know what’s good about it, so I’m going to talk about what’s bad about it.” There’s room to criticize him somewhat for the reluctance to underline the benefits, but he is on a pretty short leash in terms of time for the talk and I think his premise of freedom of choice as a basic beneficial tenet of modern industrialized Western society is correct. We don’t need to hear that part. We know it to be true. And that’s where Schwartz wants to challenge us.

Schwartz goes on for the next ten minutes giving succinct, compelling arguments about how choice has contributed to a form of social paralysis. He draws anecdotes from a number of sources: his experience buying a new pair of jeans, the adoption rate of employer matching monies in mutual fund, a psychology of value based on comparison.

The entire talk is filled with humor. Schwartz is an effective speaker. And like so many good TED talks, his speech transcends that platform of humorous rhetoric to provide voice to a critical big idea. As a society we may take freedom of choice as an unquestioned good. I think it is important to occasionally ask ourselves the question: is it? is it really?

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