The laundry detergent aisle at the local Walmart Supercenter is packed six shelves high and some 12 feet wide with Tide in multiple forms: with bleach, with fabric softener, with various fragrances and with no fragrance at all.
The arrangement is replicated down the long row as other brands, too, are stocked in all their glory.
The display gives me pause, but not to be grateful for the wealth of choices before me. Instead, I curse the time it takes to scan so many products for the one I seek.
I’m not alone.
“I don’t want to work at the grocery store,” Consumer Reports says a Facebook fan wrote after the magazine conducted a survey earlier this year on product choice at the supermarket.
More than one-third of 2,800 subscribers polled said they felt overwhelmed by the information they had to process before buying, according to the survey. Five percent of respondents reported giving up.
And the more complex the options, the tougher the decision is to make, the magazine said. Egg selection — once simply done by size or color — is complicated today by labels that include cage-free, free-range, all-natural, vegetarian and organic. Name-brand toothpaste? Each comes in dozens of varieties.
A decade ago, Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia, penned a piece for Scientific American titled “The Tyranny of Choice” in which he talked about the downside of too many options.
Schwartz, who also published a book on his findings, suggested that it’s good to have choices, but only up to a point.
“As the number of choices we face increases, the psychological benefits we derive start to level off,” he wrote. “At the same time, some of the negative effects of choice . . . begin to appear, and rather than leveling off, they accelerate.” Indeed, he said, “a point is reached at which increased choice brings increased misery rather than increased opportunity.” Schwartz ended the piece with a call for society to “rethink its worship of choice,” so this week I asked him whether he thought that had occurred.
His answer really wasn’t surprising: “As near as I can tell, things are worse now than they were when I wrote the book,” he said by email.
“The online world has made it even easier to provide unlimited options,” Schwartz said, pointing to the ascent of the Web in the intervening years. But the Internet also brought rating services and recommendation engines, which “are the only thing that saves people from being overwhelmed,” he said.
Back at Walmart, where my detergent options were real, not virtual, I eventually gave up. Not because I was overwhelmed by so much selection but because in that sea of plenty, my choices really were limited.
The brand I wanted to buy wasn’t there, so I headed for the exit, annoyed and empty-handed.