The Tyranny of Choice

More choices for Social Security and other government programs? One of the reasons so many Americans are on Prozac and Xanax is that their lives are so full of choices, it's making them miserable.

So you're buying an iPod for that special somebody this Christmas. Cool, but tell me more. Are you opting for the classic iPod or the iPod mini, available in five different "trend- setting" colors? Or perhaps you're going for the iPod U2 Special Edition, the black one with the red click wheel that old Bono's been pushing on TV. On the other hand, many feel the dreamiest iPod of all is the new, multitasking iPod photo, with either 40 or 60 gigabytes of storage, depending on personal preference.

That's what shopping—and life—is all about these days: choosing one's preference from a bewildering array of options. The U.S. is a choice-happy society, and we seem to like it this way. But as the Christmas catalogs come tumbling in and Best Buys throng with people staring in bovine mystification at the baffling new TV choices (plasma? LCD? LCoS?), you have to wonder whether all these choices are really making us happy.

The choosing may be about to ramp up significantly, if the president changes Social Security as he plans, giving Americans the option to have their own personal retirement accounts and to decide how the money is invested. Note the iPod-like layering of choices: First you would have to decide whether or not to have a personal retirement account at all; then, if you want one, you'll need to choose where to put the money. Early reports suggest the investment options would be limited to a few simple stock and bond funds—i.e., the choosing wouldn't be all that complicated. Yeah, that's what my cellphone provider says.

Choice is a core American value, and it feels sacrilegious to question it. The good life is all about freedom, and freedom means choices, so they proliferate. We greet new choices with quasi-patriotic fervor—the hybrid SUVs are almost here!—and study our Consumer Reports like a holy text. The iPod cult exemplifies this choice fetishism: Every new design twist arrives in a blast of slavish media coverage, which leads to more sales, which are followed by more innovations, and so on. The hamster wheel goes round and round, and a huge portion of our time and psychic lives is devoted to all these choices.

And more on the way. The "ownership society" Bush envisions would involve a lot of serious choices—in health care, education, and other areas—that will make Christmas shopping look easy. Have you tried to manage one of those health savings accounts that are supposed to increase personal freedom while saving money? In my limited experience, what they mainly yield is a big folder of unfiled receipts and an anxious little voice in my head that's always wondering whether I've missed the use-it-or-lose-it deadline.

Now Social Security, one of the few remaining boxes in life requiring no check-off, no choice whatsoever, is about to become another menu of options. Are you beside yourself with excitement? In fact, polls suggest most people support more choice in Social Security. When Fox News asked survey respondents, "Do you think people should have the choice to invest privately up to 5 percent of their Social Security contributions or not?," 67 percent answered yes.

Of course they did: To say no is to admit you've had shameful, pinko, un-American thoughts about how nice it would be to cut some of the choice out of life and have a spare hour away from the quarterly statements, the open seasons, and the online passwords, so you can walk the dog or play Parcheesi. In the choice-driven life, who has time for such irrelevant activities? Choice is a job, an all-consuming way of being.

Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore College professor who has studied the behavioral effects of choice, believes it's not what it's cracked up to be. Based on psychological tests and other data, he argues that too much choice is overwhelming and can lead to clinical depression in individuals, and mass social unhappiness. In other words, one of the reasons so many Americans are on Prozac and Xanax is that their lives are so full of choices, it's making them miserable. Choice, Schwartz concludes, can become its own tyranny.

When his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, was published earlier this year, it was a sensation in Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair is also trying to inject more choice into health care and other public services. There the argument tends to break along classic ideological lines, with free-market types favoring more choice, while lefties bemoan its burdens.

So far, we're not having the argument at all in the U.S., where choice is still an unchallenged good. But if by some miracle Bush's Social Security proposal allows us to talk about choice, the debate doesn't have to be ideological. Despite what Americans tell pollsters, they know choice has both benefits and costs, and that on a practical day-to-day level, more is not always better than less. When it comes to choice, everyone has an inner Bartleby who would prefer not to.

Indeed, the goal of the choice-driven life is to get to a place where you have enough money that you can pay others you trust (portfolio managers, boutique physicians) to make choices for you. That's the kind of "ownership" existence most people really want. Do we get there by running our own little Social Security accounts? Maybe. And maybe a shiny pink iPod mini really is the secret to happiness.