TOO MUCH

Posted in Quick Hits on July 24th, 2012 by Ed

Being young(ish) and living in college towns among people who tend toward the less lucrative college degrees, a high percentage of my friends would make good case studies for a Quarterlife Crisis reality show. To be blunt, I don't know many people who are terribly successful, financial or otherwise (and I certainly am not either). Let me put it this way: it's the kind of social group in which having health insurance is a cause for great envy. Even my friends and acquaintances who are gainfully employed in something more rewarding than the service industry live with a lot of anxiety and the sense that the world is crumbling around them. Basically, I have a very large social circle spanning most of the country and I can honestly say (anec-data!) that most people I know are at least somewhat depressed. To be in one's 20s and 30s today is to be overwhelmed by debt, overworked and underpaid (or not working at all), and constantly second-guessing every choice that led to this outcome. It's a biased sample, but not totally unrepresentative of the problems facing people in this age bracket.

The explanations for this are numerous and we could spend weeks discussing them all; everything from parenting techniques to macroeconomics to technological advances is relevant to understanding the predicament of the first generation of Americans to do worse than its parents. One specific explanation that has been very interesting to me lately is the psychology of indecision and the consequences of making too many choices among too many options. It doesn't matter that many of these choices are of minor importance – Where should we go for dinner tonight? Am I eating too much wheat gluten? Which toothpaste is right for me? – because the psychological cost is a function of volume as well as intensity. And there are reams of research providing evidence that it leads to depression, anxiety, lack of focus, and other problems.

The toothpaste aisle is my favorite example of this phenomenon. The next time you are in the Box Store or whatnot, stop and take a look at it. I mean, really look at it. There are, what, 75-100 different kinds of toothpaste? Maybe more. God only knows what the difference among them could be. There are dozens of flavors (all essentially identical but with creative naming variations on "mint") and all kinds of pseudoscience claiming different benefits as a marketing angle. The truth, of course, is that you can probably grab any tube of toothpaste approved for sale in the U.S. and, provided it's used regularly, reap exactly the same rewards. Your teeth will be clean and your breath will smell half-decent. But there's something about the experience that is paralyzing; we always worry, "Am I buying the right one? Which one is the best value for the money?" And then we worry about the consequences of choosing the wrong one (70s commercial voiceover guy haunts your dreams: "Gingiviiiiiitissss….")

The problem is not simply that we have trouble choosing from a large number of options, but that we A) are made to fret endlessly about the consequences of the "wrong" choices – How is your kid going to get into Harvard if you don't pick the right diapers? – and B) the choice often provides very little benefit for the cost. What do 100 kinds of shampoo or 50 different TVs get us? It gets us propaganda about how we live in the Greatest Bastion of Freedom in the history of the world. Try getting the TV you want in Soviet Russia! Everyone gets the same TV there…if they're lucky!

This was somewhat rambling, and for that I apologize. But this has been on my mind quite often lately, and the social, political, and economic ramifications are pretty clear. More choices in more areas are more likely to make us feel depressed, indecisive, and anxious than to make us feel fulfilled, happy, or successful. Sometimes I think it would be just great if the toothpaste aisle consisted of a single plain white box labeled "TOOTHPASTE." Would any of us really be worse off in that case?