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Guest post by Andrew Mayne
"Too much choice can be a bad thing-not just for the
individual, but for society."
Pop quiz, was the above statement made by?
A. Vladimir Lenin
B. Scientists in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science
Before I tell you the answer, I must warn you that
according to either A or B, the mere act of presenting you with
these choices may have made you a worse person. For that I
apologize. I limited the choices to two so that I could minimize
your negative impact on society.
I'm sure Lenin wished he'd said it, but the statement actually
comes from the first line of a press release for an upcoming paper in the journal of Psychological
Science "The Unanticipated Interpersonal and Societal
Consequences of Choice: Victim-Blaming and Reduced Support for the
Continuing on from the theme of Barry Schwartz, Sheena Iyengar
and others, that too much choice can be stressful and impair our
ability to make decisions in our own best interests, the scientists
have looked at the impact the mere presence of choice
has on the decisions we make that effect others.
Their goal was to find out if choice impairment was not only bad
on a personal level, but had negative consequences on society.
That all sounds well in good, until we get to the part where we
see what their ideas of pro-social choices are. This is where what
might very well be good science turns into sketchy political
science theory (hopefully when the paper is released it can make a
better case for how the examples were used). From the press
Simply thinking about 'choice' made people
less likely to support policies promoting greater equality and
benefits for society, such as affirmative action, a tax on
fuel-inefficient cars, or banning violent video games.
So, according to the paper the baseline examples for pro
public good behavior were support for:
1. Affirmative action
2. Taxing fuel inefficient cars
3. Banning violent video games
We go from an issue where we can all agree that at least the
intent is mutually beneficial, to an issue that's the center of
much debate and end up on one that suggests that free speech is a
bad idea - at least some of the time.
When this experiment was being planned, did not one of the
researchers or advisors raise their hand and ask if these values
were really beneficial?
While it's easy to understand a group of academics being blind
to the more complex discussions about a third-rail issue like
affirmative action, you'd like to think they might be at least
semi-aware of the unintended consequences of taxing people who
don't have the luxury of consuming in a politically correct way and
can't afford a Toyota Prius.
More disturbing is that as people in the Middle East are dying
in the streets for democracy and freedom of expression, a group of
scientists takes for granted the idea that the government is right
to restrict certain kinds of speech if they think it's in society's
best interest. Which is also how tyrants think.
But these people aren't tyrants (at least as far as we know).
They're moral, socially conscious people trying to understand how a
real phenomenon (choice anxiety) can affect that rest of humanity.
The problem is that their apparent grasp of these issues is so
narrow, some could argue that making the 'wrong' choice in most of
those issues (letting people spend their money in the marketplace
and not to an inefficient bureaucracy or deciding that any
restriction on speech is an assault on all forms of speech) is the
choice that actually brings the greater good.
Their well-intentioned 'public good' examples illustrate
the problem of the 'science gap' between academics and the general
public. Scientists often suffer from expert bias and assume their
expertise in their own field also gives them a proficiency in
totally unrelated areas like economics and political science. Add
in group reinforcement from their peers and you have a group of
politically and religiously homogenized people who have very
different ideas from you and I on what exactly 'the public good'
Market theory, evolutionary psychology and neuroeconomics have
reinforced what Adam Smith already told us, that the best measure
of what brings about the public good isn't found in measuring just
one choice, it's the cumulative effect of all the different choices
that we make as a society. Choice causes anxiety, but its an
important part of being a human and not a member of an ant
If a group of academics really could sit around and figure out
what all the right choices were that would lead to a better public
good, the 20th Century would have been a lot less bloody. Sadly,
they couldn't and the biggest cost of life was the unintended
consequences of a small group of ill-informed people making choices
for the rest of us.
Side note: The paper also deals with how in the presence of
choice we assign greater agency to others in the bad actions that
happen to ourselves. according to the press release, contemplating
any kind of choice makes us want to blame others. This is certainly
an interesting concept and hopefully suggests the value of the
paper isn't just as an example of the cognitive bias of the
too much choice...