Wednesday, 4 July 2007

The agony of choice

I'm finding it difficult to get immersed in the book I'm currently reading. It's a hefty tome from Edward Rutherfurd, and I get the feeling I need to sit down with it for a decent hour or so to accustom myself to the style before I’m able to absorb the detail whilst reading on a train. I cut my losses after about twenty pages and turned to a copy of the T2 that someone had thoughtfully left on the table in front of me.

The cover of T2 proclaimed that Tesco now sell 38 different types of milk, and raised the question of whether freedom and choice really make us happy. This article got me thinking...

I recalled a time nearly ten years ago when I had just come back from living and traveling in Tanzania. I had been living in remote villages, with meals consisting of various combinations of rice, beans and lentils, occasionally supplemented with fresh fruit or vegetables. Our meal choices were between beans and rice, lentils and rice, beans and lentils, and for a special treat, rice with beans and lentils would be served up. Then for the rest of the week, we would swap the order of the ingredients and have rice with beans instead of beans and rice.

I remember that I dreamed on more than one occasion about manor houses with fine dining halls overflowing with all varieties of meats, fruits, deserts and even cheeses, for which at that time I had no love. Then I would wake up, salivating, under a mosquito net in a canvas shelter sleeping ten other people, with rain beating down on the canvas. The strange thing was, despite having vivid dreams of varied foods, I wasn't aware of being any less happy for want of salt of vinegar crisps. Or any crisps, come to that....

Back in the UK, and back to the reality of sourcing food from a supermarket instead of a weekly market a half day walk away, I felt disorientated and somewhat dismayed by the vast array of foods available. My heart sank as I wandered down aisle after aisle filled with pasta of different shapes, colours and packaging. The meats which were of so regular shapes looked like they had been grown in moulds. The aisle which totally overwhelmed me was the one with the beverages. After six months of drinking chlorinated water, I could only stare in bewilderment at the sheer number of different types of orange squash. It was sickening to me that such disparities should exist. I couldn't articulate the sense of injustice I felt, so instead did the only sensible thing under the circumstances and burst into tears.

People stared. A lady asked if I was OK. I didn't quite know if I was. I suppose I wasn't really OK, yet had anyone asked why I was crying, I wouldn't have had much of an answer beyond telling them as they could well see for themselves that there were twenty different types of orange squash.

There were many incidents that brought me to the brink of tears while I was in Tanzania. One that I recall was triggered by the disparity in the level of choice that individuals could exercise. A young lad had cautiously approached me as I sat on top of a large boulder in a broad plain at the bottom of the village writing my diary. I had initially noticed him when he was some distance away, keeping a watchful eye over his herd of perhaps 40 cows. Over the course of the next hour, they wandered generally in my direction, and eventually the lad climbed the boulder and sat near me. I greeted him, and we got chatting. He was 18, as was I at that time. His family had 38 cows, which he herded for 6 hours every day. He'd stopped going to school when he was 12, as his parents couldn't afford to pay the fees, and consequently he couldn't get a job, not that there were any jobs available in the village. The nearest employment was in town, 2 days’ walk away, hardly commutable. He would have to move to town for a job, and that was impossible - he was needed to herd the cows.

I was quiet. He wandered off the boulder to follow his herd. I sat thinking about my brother, who had recently graduated from Cambridge. When he was 18, he wasn't herding cows. He had a world of opportunity and choice at his feet. Not only did he have plenty to eat, he had a choice of what to eat. Able to choose what to do with his days. So much choice, and this lad had almost none, though judging by the smile on his face, he had made at least one choice. He seemed to have chosen to be happy. I watched him wander off into the distance, blurred by the tears in my eyes. I wasn't sure why I was crying, but I did wonder whether any of the possessions in my backpack or the choices I would have the agony of pondering in future actually had any impact on how likely I was to be happy.

And so back to the 38 different types of milk which Tesco are selling. I suspect that if they only sold one variety, the type which came out of cows, it wouldn’t bother me. I would probably buy it. I would probably stick it in my tea. And I would probably get used to it and proclaim to like the taste of it after a few weeks, yes, even if it was the banana flavored variety. I also suspect that my levels of happiness would be unaffected if for the rest of my life, I was only permitted one shape of pasta. I would however prefer that my food choices were more varied than choosing two from rice, beans and lentils, and that if I wasn't too keen on cows, I could choose
another manner in which to earn my living. 

So, how much choice is too much, or too little? I can't decide - you choose.


Andrew Ferrier said...

I have often wondered whether the coddled existence that people such as myself lead, with our economically right-wing minds, lead us to the conclusion that choice is always a good thing.

I think it's easy to overcome the 'problem' of Tesco: simply go to a smaller/more traditional market. They do exist, and I know of more than one (mostly middle-aged) person who won't shop in large supermarkets for precisely this reason. I think this is the free market acting to provide something which reduces your choice (and yes, some will pay for that privilege).

But your question still remains, and it does bother me - mainly because I know choice irritates me too (although I've never had such a moving experience as you describe).

Here's an interesting discussion though:

(Russ Roberts is host of one my favourite podcasts -

KindaBlue said...

Unfortunately, the free market tends to mitigate against choice in a different way. The free market model is what results in communities being dominated by identikit supermarkets, all of whom operate in broadly similar ways in order to sell more or less the same things. One may have choice in the short range, but on a macro scale we are all forced to conform.

The only way to ensure diversity (and therefore also choice) is through intervention and economic planning. Whereas an unfettered free market tends towards economic monopoly, a planned economy can prevent such an occurrence by guaranteeing every competitor a seat at the table.

Sadly, without positive intervention, Andrew's alternative to the Tescos of this world will slowly, inevitably, be eroded by a kind of cultural monopoly that values conformity and rejects variety.

But Why? said...

I should perhaps point out that the sight of shelf upon shelf of orange squash no longer makes me burst into floods of tears....

Yes, the free market gives us choice, but choice subject to the cultural influences in which the market operates, and whilst that is dominated by a particular view (one which appears to value abundance over quality), I feel free to choose from what the majority wish to buy. I'm not going to attach an ethical judgement to those statement - the economic question of how to satisfy unlimited wants with limited resources has to be adressed by some means, and for the most part, the free market does me very little harm.

But (I'd love to wind the two of you up, put you in opposite corners, put my feet up and watch...) x

Andrew Ferrier said...

kindablue, I think you and I have differing opinions on how to provide choice. It appears that you have a moral (and practical) issue with the way I would like to do it - I certainly do with yours, sorry :)

My curiosity was more centred around whether choice is even a good thing. I believe it is economically speaking beneficial to provide diversity, and I assume from your comments you do too (even if we are opposed on the way of getting there). It's not immediately obvious that it is beneficial, however, certainly from a psychological/happiness perspective. This is where I think the market wins - I can buy myself out of choice if I want, ironically by making a choice to shop somewhere that there is little choice. But you might see that in a different way.

But Why? said...

Excellent. Atta, boys!

But x

Anna MR said...

But - when I first arrived in Britain in 1988, I had a similar gut-reaction upset feeling as you did coming from Tanzania - although lighter in weight, as I only came from a not-nominally-Soviet-satellite-state in northeastern Europe. Children's pasta in various TV character shapes, to coax the little darlings to eat, that sort of thing, it really did my head in.

Of course now, what with the breakdown of the Soviet Union and us joining the EU and all that, it is much the same here as it is there - hence the recent rant about the chocolate-flavoured straws, if you recall.

Anyway - no particular addition to anything that has gone before - just to say "I hear you".



But Why? said...


In light of that, I think it's rather amazing that a few years later and being short of time I found myself perusing the retail outlets of Guildford for fairy wings, wand and tiara yesterday (to worn at a fundraising event). Praise be to the free market - I found the lot of them in pretty short order and for remarkably little cash outlay.

I intend to spend today donating money to various causes to assuage my guilt at buying transient trinkets made by exploited workers and feeding the demand for low cost tat.

I would love to be able to reconcile this behaviour with the subject of my post, but firstly, I can't and secondly if I try I get rather morose.

Any tips (beyond not buyig the sodding fairy wings in the first place)??

But x

Anna MR said...


Honey, no. It is an unfair world and the only thing we can do is suffer guilt pangs. Which, when you start to think on it, is also a measure of our privilegedness (hello, I am one who can think herself into a tizzy in nanoseconds).

One of my favourite horrors is the idea of Chinese dissidents making the throwaway shite toys in cereal boxes. Really does my head in.

Have a nice Sunday regardless of my morose company, But...


But Why? said...

Throwaway shite in cereal packets - does that still happen in today's risk-averse world? I would have thought the choking hazard was too great for small bits of plastic to be added to foodstuffs intentionally...

Bt the way, I do like the word "morose". I particlarly like the way that it's "moose" with an "r" in the middle...
But x

Anna MR said...

Dear But, it is thanks to you all my morose moods will be infected with the image of a sulking moose, till the day I die. Brilliant. Lovely. Wonderful. You are fab.


(And yes, they do still exist. Nowadays they are the equivalent of olden-day Donkey Kong games - the kids I teach bring them to school sometimes, to my abject horror and dismay. Also - I loved the fly post, too.)

But Why? said...

Now, how could you possibly stay morose with a mental image like that floating around your head??

Good luck with your future morosity,

But x

DJ Kirkby said...

Wow really insightful post. 'He chose to be happy', I liked this statement. I will try to rmember it as I walk into work this morning...

jclary said...

I wonder if perhapse you have a similar situation in your country as we do here in America.

It's not hard to imagine that people have actually had complete mental breakdowns while trying to order coffee at the local Starbucks when all they really want is a regular cup of coffee. When ordering you are assaulted with a thousand different possible combinations of coffee-flavored drinks that no sane person could navigate.

Personally, Starbucks gives me the willies and when I'm forced to go to one I usually end up ordering what the person in line ahead of me ordered because my brain checks out from the stress and all I can manage to do is parrot the last thing I heard. I have a difficult enough time deciding what I want at a McDonnalds.

If I ever actually tried to decide on and order that "Grande Lowfat Half-Caf Java Chip Frappuccino at 140 degrees with whipped cream and caramel sauce" or whatever it is I'm quite certain my brain would implode.

Of course our lovely American insanity is catching and has infected your delightful country as I hear Starbucks has made appearances there as well in recent years.

Anyway, just passing by on my slow but methodical descent into insanity... nice blog. ;)

But Why? said...


Thanks for dropping by - you're most welcome. Ah, that Starbucks moment. I know well the fear that strikes me dumb when the time comes to articulate my order. Five minutes in queue, but amazingly, I've never worked out what I want by the time it's my turn. I could just resort to a cup of tea, but I tend to shy away from the stress of such situations these days - I think I get more impatient as I get older...