Choice doesn't always mean well-being for everyone

Jan 19, 2010

American culture venerates choice, but choice may not be the key to happiness and health, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

"Americans live in a political, social, and historical context that advances personal freedom, , and self-determination above all else," write authors Hazel Rose Markus (Stanford University) and Barry Schwartz (Swarthmore College). "Contemporary psychology has proliferated this emphasis on choice and self-determination as the key to healthy psychological functioning."

The authors point out that this emphasis on choice and freedom is not universal. "The picture presented by a half-century of research may present an accurate picture of the psychological importance of choice, freedom, and among middle-class, college-educated Americans, but this is a picture that leaves about 95 percent of the world's population outside its frame," the authors write.

The authors reviewed a body of research surrounding the cultural ideas surrounding choice. They found that among non-Western cultures and among working-class Westerners, freedom and choice are less important or mean something different than they do for the university-educated people who have participated in psychological research on choice.

"And even what counts as a 'choice' may be different for non-Westerners than it is for Westerners," the authors write. "Moreover, the enormous opportunity for growth and self-advancement that flows from unlimited freedom of choice may diminish rather than enhance subjective well-being."

People can become paralyzed by unlimited choice, and find less satisfaction with their decisions. Choice can also foster a lack of empathy, the authors found, because it can focus people on their own preferences and on themselves at the expense of the preferences of others and of society as a whole.

"We cannot assume that choice, as understood by educated, affluent Westerners, is a universal , and that the provision of choice will necessarily foster freedom and well-being," the authors write. "Even in contexts where choice can foster , empowerment, and independence, it is not an unalloyed good. Choice can also produce a numbing uncertainty, depression, and selfishness."

Explore further: Understanding the economics of human trafficking

More information: Hazel Rose Markus and Barry Schwartz. "Does Choice Mean Freedom and Well Being?" Journal of Consumer Research: August 2010.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Consumers stop buying as number of options increase

Mar 11, 2009

It is a common belief that having more options is better, and that people tend to go to stores that provide them with more choices. However, a new study in the journal Psychology & Marketing reveals that when people cannot ...

Too many choices can spoil the research

Jun 26, 2008

The more choices people get, the less consistent they are in making those choices, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research. The study's findings may affect the way researchers examine consumer choice ...

The choice is ours

Apr 02, 2008

The option to choose among several courses of action is often associated with the feeling of being in control. Yet, in certain situations, one may prefer to decline such agency and instead leave the choice to someone else ...

Decisions, decisions: Feedback influences decision making

Nov 12, 2008

Every day we are faced with a multitude of choices, but the majority of these fall into two categories: descriptive choice (based on what we are told) and experiential choice (based on our own personal experience). An example ...

Recommended for you

Understanding the economics of human trafficking

6 hours ago

Although Europe is one of the strictest regions in the world when it comes to guaranteeing the respect of human rights, the number of people trafficked to or within the EU still amounts to several hundred ...

Affirmative action elicits bias in pro-equality Caucasians

Jul 25, 2014

New research from Simon Fraser University's Beedie School of Business indicates that bias towards the effects of affirmative action exists in not only people opposed to it, but also in those who strongly endorse equality.

Election surprises tend to erode trust in government

Jul 24, 2014

When asked who is going to win an election, people tend to predict their own candidate will come out on top. When that doesn't happen, according to a new study from the University of Georgia, these "surprised losers" often ...

User comments : 0