Do you remember taking “fill-in-the-blank” tests back in elementary school? They were the worst, weren’t they? I used to think it was okay when the teacher would give a word bank, but as I got older the teachers started throwing in extra words that weren’t supposed to be used. Imagine the nerve…extra “filler” just to mess you up! This thought came back to me the other day while I was grocery shopping, but more on that later. My argument here is we have so much information constantly at our fingertips that it actually overwhelms one’s capacity to efficiently make decisions. It is almost as if we’re taking another fill-in-the-blank test. This time, when you ask for a word bank, the smug teacher hands you a Merriam-Webster dictionary and snickers, “Not all of the words will be used.” A perfect score on your fill-in-the-blank test is sitting at your fingertips, but it worth the effort to extract it?
We are drowning in information—and most of it is worthless! Think of your email inbox this morning–how many emails did you delete before even bothering to open them? While you’re thinking of all those unread messages, remember that your spam-filters had pre-screened all those emails you just manually deleted! This same story is written each time you turn on the TV. Do you remember all the hassle when the cable companies switched to digital broadcasting in 2009? One of the main reasons for the switch was so the networks could offer you morechannels! While I was home over break, I watched the local news on channel #806. Are there really 805 channels that need to be listed before ABC (in high definition…because regular is simply unacceptable :))?
Both consciously and unconsciously, we make daily decisions on what to read, what to watch, and what to drink. While this proliferation of choices means there are certainly more good options to choose, it simultaneously means those decisions are becoming harder and harder to make. We must become better at filtering information. Some things are worth reading, watching, or drinking—but many are not.
That being said, the true danger lies in choosing nothing at all! The pain of a wrong decision is relatively short-lived when compared to the anguish of indecision. Just the other day I was at the grocery store. [As promised earlier, here’s the story.] All I needed was a jar of mayonnaise. When I finally found the mayonnaise section, there were about 20 different types of mayo. It looked something like this:
Some were in big jars, some were in small jars—some weren’t in any jars at all. There were squeeze bottles, big bottles, and little bottles. Some had half the fat, some had no fat, yet all of them seemed to brag “No Trans-Fat.” I was paralyzed by the options. My meager mental capacity was overwhelmed by an imposing wall of egg yolk, oil and vinegar! Why did this happen? Why couldn’t I just grab one and move on? I couldn’t because I reasoned that all the options existed because one was a better choice than the rest. If you know me at all—you know I’m going to get that best one! Yet, was my search for the “perfect” mayonnaise worth two minutes of my time at the supermarket? I’d argue that it’s not. The choices that ostensibly make my life better/easier/more enjoyable robbed me of my time–of my life itself!
This is the exact problem psychologist Barry Schwartz explores in his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice. Since you probably don’t have time to read the whole book, here’s a link to Schwartz’s TED presentation on the topic. If you can get past his ridiculously stylish outfit, it’s a thought provoking talk that is more applicable now than ever.
What does this post accomplish? Am I just adding my own individual spice to this massive stew of options you have sitting at your fingertips? Let’s just say I’m adding another jar of mayonnaise to the shelf.