The Sifted Bookshelf: The Myth of Choice

So many social issues hinge on choice and individual responsibility. To what extent do our choices shape our lives, and how much choice did we really have? A struggling family pays its rent and buys the kids school clothes rather than sign up for health insurance. Should we regard that as a “choice” to be uninsured?

The poor often make bad choices. They may eat badly, handle money badly, or fail to invest enough time developing marketable skills. Is that because they lack character, or because poverty is a high-stress environment in which it’s hard to make good choices?

In another view, nothing is anybody’s fault. We’re all just automata, determined by forces beyond our control: genetics, peer pressure, advertising, culture, economic forces, childhood trauma, and so on. If one child goes to college and another to prison, it’s just the breaks.

The Myth of Choice by Kent Greenfield is the beginning of a more meaningful dialog about choice. He presents a variety of real-life examples and scientific studies that point in a more sensible direction: We do all make choices, but our options are limited by external forces. And even when the external world isn’t constraining us, we are limited by what he calls our “choice muscles”. If we have to make too many stressful decisions or apply too much willpower, they wear out and we begin to act like the kind of automata pictured by determinists.

In one experiment, people were asked to remember a number and then offered a snack. The longer the number, the more likely they were to take the cake rather than the fruit. The stress of the longer number left fewer mental resources to apply toward healthy eating.

The metaphor of “choice muscles” is a valuable addition to the discussion. As individuals, it points us toward exercising them and building them up, as well as towards avoiding needless temptations. And as a society, how do we create choice-friendly environments that make it easy to choose the things we really want, rather than overwhelming environments that make us more manipulable?

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  • Nancy Minter  On February 13, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    I was watching a replay of the snippet of Republicans applauding the suggestion that letting an uninsured man die was justifiable. I thought at the time that the way it was phrased was so loaded that I would have been inclined to let the guy die.

    I mean let’s face it, it’s PR 101.
    Ask this question
    “A young healthy man decides not to buy health care cause he doesn’t need it, but time passes and he get sick. Now he’s in a coma, and is dying and has no way to pay for treatment. Should the rest of us have to pay for it?”

    The answer you get is very different from the response you get from this question.

    “A young healthy man has to choose between health care and housing. He’s hopes he will be able to buy the health care at a later date, but by the time he can afford it he’s ill and can’t get it at any price. Now he’s in a coma and dying. Should he have to die because some corporation can’t figure out how to profit from his disease?”

    We need to start pushing the fairness button. Quit trying to appeal to compassionate conservative (no such thing) instead show how compassion is a fairness issue.

  • Roger  On February 14, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    Thanks for encouraging thoughtful reflections on choice and personal responsibility. Greenfield’s book can help people see that we have only limited insight into the way we make choices and the extent to which individual freedom is constrained by factors such as lack of available “bandwidth.” Since the decision-making process is so mysterious, we shouldn’t flatter ourselves that we are obviously superior to those whose choices seem flawed.

    Roger Schriner

  • Ames  On February 17, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    I had the opportunity to hear Kent Greenfield speak about this book. One aspect of choice he addressed was the trend toward tort reform that would presumably “protect” consumers’ freedom to choose, including the freedom to make uninformed, potentially injurious choices. Wish I had gotten the book when I attended the lecture. Off to the library…


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