Reflecting on this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, many of us may have indulged in a last-minute artsy pilgrimage to taste the final dregs of whisky and catch the rounds of applause as the sprawling carnival drew to a close. My sister was one of those pilgrims. With a brochure rivalling the Yellow Pages in its dimensions, a website smattered in alluring adverts for shows and a drop-down menu of 10 different performance genres, those planning a Scottish adventure might have found themselves overwhelmed. 2013 was a record year for the world’s largest arts festival, with 2,871 different shows in 273 venues involving 24,107 performers. Of course, we should celebrate that such diversity gives lots of different artists exposure. But all this choice can soon become over-exposure for the eager visitor wading through the gargantuan catalogue.
Choice was once a word that promised freedom. When the Pill was first marketed in the 1960s, it was all about that little word ‘choice’. Able to say no to pregnancy, women’s bodies were liberated, their personal aspirations prioritised. And that kind of choice was powerful. In a world where convenience is king, fast-moving consumer goods are becoming increasingly prominent in our daily lives. You’d be forgiven for thinking that when we thoughtfully select the spice level for our Nandos chicken, we are in a position of power. We might for a moment get a heady rush of authority as we optimise every chicken-eating experience.
Yet, when the American coffee chain Starbucks first crossed the Atlantic in 1998, we were bamboozled by a menu that required expert navigation. We dithered between coffee and crème blended frappucinos, macchiatos and ristrettos in three different Italian sizes and grappled with the dilemma of drinking in or out. Such a bewildering portfolio of beverages can only be expected from America, a nation whose individuals are known to make an average of 70 choices a day. Indeed, I remember all too well a moment from a childhood visit to Florida when my mother struggled in the heat to organise a picnic lunch for a young family of five. I remember her anguished journey through the bagel creating process- did she want onion/sesame/poppy/granary/multiseed/rye or walnut bagel? Lettuce/rocket/watercress/spinach/mixed salad? Jack cheese/pepper jack/blue jack/herb jack? Far from being liberated, she’d been robbed of right to re-fuel with what was supposed to be a meal on the move. And what was then, is now. I find myself having to do mental gymnastics just to work out what qualifies in the Boots ‘meal-deal’.
Perhaps what is most interesting is that the vast choice that businesses lay on for us can drive consumers away rather than lure them in. The famous study conducted in 1995 by Sheena Iyengar, a Professor at Colombia Business School and author of ‘The Art of Choosing’ (2010) presented shoppers with two different sample booths of Wilkins and Sons jams. Whilst more passers-by were drawn to the glistening appeal of 24 different flavours to taste, the other stall secured more sales despite being decorated with a mere 6 jars. Faced with less choice, the busy shopper was much more likely to commit. Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz tells us, ‘no longer liberates, but deliberates. It can even be said to tyrannise’. There are 216 brands of facial wash in Superdrug. This is no good to the angsty teenager combing the crammed shelves for a discreet solution. In these moments, old-fashioned soap and water become all too tempting, suddenly transformed into a luxury simply because they are easy.
Choice is suppose to set us free, but instead it leaves us shackled at the counter. We find ourselves drawn in by ‘you want it, you got it’ promises and yet more and more frequently I’m losing sight of what I originally wanted, going along with anything just to move the process forward. ‘The choice is yours’. Or is it?