Saturday, 20 November 2010

Worlds of plenty, worlds of choice

I spent six months working at Borough Market, amongst mountain ranges of vegetables. All those piles of nature’s bounty were impressive, regardless of the quality. Forty pumpkins are somehow more appealing than one lonely one, even if those at the bottom of the pile are riddled with rat holes.

Maybe it’s an evolutionary response: plenty should be pleasing for obvious reasons. This isn’t restricted to fresh produce. We like burgeoning shelves in a supermarket much better than scantily-stocked ones. A single jar of marmalade looks miserable, and we wonder, why is just that one left?

But the gratifying effect of quantity twists when you also turn up the variety. Too much choice causes a kind of cognitive panic, and we become stymied. How do we pick the best out of nineteen different types of jam? Are there differences between twelve brands of sliced white that we should be considering before we buy?

Choice has become a hot topic in popular philosophy, migrating into the mainstream from the arid academic field of rational choice theory. It’s a sign of the times; never before have consumers faced such baffling variety.

Rational choice theory is about weighing up actions and their outcomes to figure out which choice is the best for an individual. Negative outcomes are counted too: the gateau may afford a lot more pleasure than the rye crackers, but this might be negated by the relative weight gain for someone on a diet.

With choices, then, there are costs as well as benefits to be considered. One small cost is the computational energy involved in figuring out which sandwich will make the best lunch today. Faced with a huge amount of choice, this computational cost increases, until at some point it seems unmanageable. Factor in the time spent too, especially now that time is so precious to so many of us, and it is no wonder that a wall of wondrously varied jars of jam can become somewhat distressing.

Back in my PhD days when I thought about and discussed this subject a lot, a colleague who was such a fiend for rational choice that he could appear scarily robotic admitted leaving restaurants when faced with excessively long menus. He couldn’t bring himself to just pick at random, but the rational approach become unwieldy for a human brain.

In these situations, people not infected with rational choice theory turn to heuristics, or in simpler terms, short-cuts. One common short-cut is to refer to an expert, or failing that, a trusted source. Even someone who has a little more experience than us can become the deciding factor in a major decision. We buy cars, holidays, even properties on the basis of one friend’s recommendation.

Another key short-cut is to fall back on salience. We go for a brand we know, or a name that is simply more familiar than the rest. Hence advertising, even for products or services we rarely use, is worthwhile. I’ve never owned a car, but when the time comes and I have to buy insurance, that horrible nodding dog will lurch from the back of my mind and Churchill will have gained a foothold, however good or bad their deals turn out to be.

My preferred solution to all this is time-costly but high on satisfaction. Faced with a mountain of average oranges on one side and twenty-three types of marmalade on the other, I will retreat to the pound-a-bowl fruit seller at Walthamstow market and make the marmalade myself.


  1. My first filter is origin.
    I don't buy from certain countries or from certain firms.
    Next fitness for purpose.
    So if it's something I know nothing about - anything involving anything to press in sequence to obtain results - I'll look at the appropriate technical reviews to see if it does what I want it to do.
    And now I'm off to pick the sevilles before the man who looks after the finca decides to make a fruit drink from them...which is what he thinks they're for, while I think they're for marmelade.
    Different perceptions from differing backgrounds.

  2. I so sympathise with that guy is the restaurant, but mainly because long menus usually mean crap food.

    I'd rather have a small choice of good quality than a near-infinite variety of crap - like Sky TV now I think of it.

    There used to be an advert run by WH Smith that promoted the 350 pencils they stocked. And I recall someone saying, 'but I only need one or two pencils and I want them to chose the best ones for me; I haven't got a clue.'

  3. I generally choose based on my own needs, cost and quality of product. I also don't care for overlong menus and do not own a television or satellite dish, thus escaping the costs of an endless chain of rubbish and the adverts accompanying same.