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Literature in a Hurry: Battling the paradox of choice

Kim Ukura

One of the most exciting parts of vacation planning is choosing all of the attractions and restaurants I'm going to visit. However, I also find myself consistently baffled and overwhelmed by the number of choices there are to make when you visit a new and bigger place. Despite being excited about the plans that are in place, there's always this nagging feeling that I'm missing something potentially better because there are so many options.

This is the paradox of choice. We say we want to have a life full of possibilities, but the act of choosing among our choices can often leave us feeling anxious or discontent.

One of my favorite books about the paradox of choice is The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar, a business professor at Columbia Business School in New York City. Her research on choice has been featured across disciplines, reaching into economics, psychology, management and marketing.

Although the book is full of memorable examples, my favorite is a description of one of Iyengar's most famous project: The Jam Study.

To complete the study, Iyengar and several graduate students posed as representatives of a British jam supplier in a San Francisco supermarket. At a booth near the entrance of the store, two graduate students offered an array of jams for customers to try, switching every hour between a selection of 24 flavors or a selection of six flavors.

Another student assistant took up a post behind an assortment of cookware to note how many people opted to taste the jam. About 60 percent of shoppers sampled from the large assortment, but only 40 percent tasted when there were fewer options.

Another graduate student was working incognito in the jam aisle, noting the behavior of customers who had taken a taste at the booth. He observed that "people who had sampled the large assortment were quite puzzled. They kept examining different jars, and if they were with other people, they discussed the relative merits of the flavors. This went on for up to ten minutes, at which point many of them left empty-handed.

"By contrast, those who had seen only six jams seemed to know exactly which one was right for them. They strode down the aisle, grabbed a jar in a quick minute - lemon curd was the favorite - and continued with the rest of their shopping."

At the end of the study, Iyengar and her students discovered that 30 percent of the people who had seen the small assortment of jam made a purchase, but only three percent bought a jar after seeing the large assortment.

Her conclusion is this: "The expansion of choice has become an explosion of choice, and while there is something beautiful and immensely satisfying about having all of this variety at our fingertips, we also find ourselves beset by it."

The question of choice, whether you have the option to do, see, eat or experience anything you want at any time, is both a challenge and a benefit to living in a small town.

One the one hand, it can be a challenge to convince outsiders (and even insiders) that it's possible to be content and find things to do when you live in a rural area.

I recently chatted with an online acquaintance who visited Morris with his daughter, a high school student who is considering coming to UMM in the fall. He told me she loved the college, but had some concerns about the town.

I told him the same thing I tell most people who seem skeptical about life in a small town: thriving outside a major metropolitan area requires flexibility, especially if you come to the community from somewhere that offers more choices. You can't do or have anything you want at any time, and you have to get used to that. It's a challenge, both for the people who live here and the people who are considering coming for the first time.

But there are benefits to having fewer choices. It's easier to appreciate events or festivals when there isn't the option to drive to one every weekend. It's more fun to celebrate a midnight movie premiere when they happen every once in awhile.

On the whole, we're more likely to be content with the choices we do make when there are fewer options to start with than when we feel like we're missing out.

So while I'm excited for my vacation and all of the possibilities that going to the big city is going to have, by the end of the week I know I'll be ready to give those choices up for the options I have right now.