Overwhelmed by variety

I always dread the moment of coming up to the banana section of my local supermarket. It drives me bananas!

I always dread the moment of coming up to the banana section of my local supermarket. On several platforms are a million motley bunches, endless brands, sizes and levels of ripeness. The organics are always too small and often expensive; those of perfect size are too ripe or unripe; people are picking up, squeezing and tossing back the fruit — it’s a big yellow s-fight.

Today I escape with a bunch that’s not great but I feel the skin on my neck prickling from anxiety and imagine the loudspeaker: “Help needed in aisle sis, customer breakdown at bananas … ”

I have what I suspect is some sort of choice anxiety. It isn’t just me. Knowing I was planning to write about the overwhelming feeling I get in supermarkets, restaurants and stores because of the ridiculous plethora of product choices, I take note. And, yes, it’s everywhere. In the dairy section I hear a young German couple cursing at the yoghurts while picking up and putting back into the fridge 10 different varieties.

I remember buying just plain ol’ yoghurt. But forget the simplicity of yesteryear. Today, it’s yoghurt with gelatine (pig trotters or animal bits) and sugar — but low in fat — or without trotters but with chemicals and colour additives; Greek-style, organic-style, dairy-free style (huh?).

Everywhere people are squinting and muttering angrily while reading labels. The alternative is finding out you’re downing mouthfuls of genetically modified, chemically enriched, sugar-drenched putty filler.

And talking of putty filler, in Bunnings I witnessed a meltdown in the planter boxes section. A couple were bickering over 200 different containers. “No, but this one is plastic and light” … “Yes, but it’s ugly.”

I went in for a hose and other gizmos but by the 10th nozzle set I was holding my head. I finally lost the plot at door knobs and announced to a friend who had come to help me: “I’m suffering from overwhelm. I need to go home.” No wonder many of us find it hard to make big life choices. By the time we’ve made 1000 small meaningless ones, we’re done for.

In his 2004 bestseller The Paradox of Choice, US psychologist and professor of social theory Barry Schwartz foresaw this outcome.

“As Americans, we assume that more choice means better options and greater satisfaction,” he writes. “But beware of excessive choice: choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures. In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis … when your options are limitless, too much choice can lead to clinical depression.”

Over a decade later, his prediction is now reality, with internet shopping, endless consumer products and endless ways of choosing to live — to the point where a friend’s five-year-old son has a transgender teddy bear.

Freedom of choice has made us crazy with worry about whether we have done enough research: Is it genetically modified? Where is it made? How? Child labour? Are orang-utans dying because of it? And then a sense of failure if (or rather when) we make a mistake.

The choice epidemic was parodied in an episode of The Simpsons when they visited Monstromart, “Where shopping is a baffling ordeal” and the fast lane said “1000 items or less”. Shelves reached into the sky. Now companies are actually culling back choice to give people a sense of simplicity: British chain Tesco cut a third of its 90,000 products from shelves last year.

Schwartz argues that increased choice can make us miserable, cause regret and self-blame. I have the solution. Next week at the supermarket, I will shut my eyes and go for a lucky dip. It’s the only thing that might save me from going bananas.

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