Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Salad Dressing and Expectation of People

This is a long post so you might want to get your coffee first. I'll wait.

I went to the grocery.

I wasn't in the market for salad dressing. I just happened to be in the isle. For whatever reason, I decided to count. There are 143 varieties of salad dressing to choose from in my grocery store. The cereal isle is over one hundred feet long. There are 121 variations of potato chips. If you include the combinations of packages, there are 87 different options for salads. This is the price of total freedom.

My eyes glazed over.

I wondered about this freedom thing. Is there such a thing as too much freedom? The official dogma of all civilized western societies is... in order to maximize the welfare of citizens, you must maximize individual freedoms. This is inherently a good thing because we don't have someone deciding on our welfare for us. The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice. The more choice we have, the more freedom we will have and thus the welfare of the individual will be maximized.

Simple, right?

Go to an electronics store. There are myriad choices to make. In the average electronics store, by combining products to build your system, it is possible to construct over six million different stereo systems.

Too much freedom is debilitating. How does one choose when there are over six million options.

The corporate civilized west has given us all of these options in virtually every area of our lives believing the more choice they give us, the more sales they will generate. In actuality, the opposite happens. People become so overwhelmed by their options they decide not to decide and put their money back in their pockets.

So what?

Remember back when there were two or three blue-jean companies and they had one style of jeans each. The jeans may not have fit perfectly so you washed them a few times and they shrunk a bit and after a while they felt great. Now you can get stone wash or acid wash or straight leg or loose fit or relaxed fit or boot cut or skinny leg or boyfriend jeans (huh?) or low rise or ultra-low rise or mid rise or high rise or... Crikey! And then you have to choose a combination of all of those.

There's a reason I have found a jean style that works for me and I don't deviate... ever.

The trouble starts when you get home with your new jeans. They may be better fitting than the jeans when there was only one style and yet you are less satisfied. The reason people are less satisfied is because they immediately start wondering if they could have made a better choice. The litany of choices does not fade after the decision has been made. What if I chose that or combined that with that? Would my jeans be even better? With more options, it's easier to imagine you could have made a better choice and the satisfaction of the choice you made decreases... even if the choice was a good one.

Why? With all of the choices, expectation goes up dramatically. We now expect perfection and we believe there could have been a more perfect choice. This second guessing happens all of the time in every arena of our lives. All of this choice produces paralysis and self-doubt rather than what might be expected... liberation.

Here's where it gets interesting. There have been studies done over the past twenty years or so showing individuals are not as satisfied when there are more choices than they can compute easily. When we have more choices, we expect perfection and when what we get is satisfactory, we are unhappy because our choice wasn't perfect. When there is less choice, expectation drops and we are happier because there are occasions when what we choose exceeds expectation and most of the time, our choice meets expectation.

As it turns out, the secret to happiness is low expectation. Who'd a thunk it.

In addition, consider this... when there are few choices and something goes wrong, who's fault is it? Theirs... the world. (Well, I only have one choice!) When there are hundreds or thousands of choices and something goes wrong, who's fault is it? Ours... the individual. (We could have done better!) With the explosion of depression and suicides in recent decades, at least part (not all) of the explanation is the overwhelming choices and the internalization that we could have made better choices all of the time. We blame ourselves because our expectations have risen and our results have not kept up to those expectations.

Fewer choices would lead to lower expectations which would lead to more happiness which leads to higher self esteem which would lead to fewer suicides and cases of depression. (Far too many clinical studies to cite that bear this out.)

The conundrum of having all of this freedom of choice is a reduced satisfaction in our choices and lower self esteem. We do need choices. No doubt about it. One or two options does not freedom make. However, there is a line in the sand about the perfect number of choices and even the experts don’t know where that line is. The line is irrelevant since in western society, we have long since surpassed that perfect number.

Pick one... only one... and it has to be the right one.
The problem becomes that all of those choices leading to lower self esteem means we can't even make simple choices without lamenting about them far longer than they deserve.

The interesting thing to me is this; we have transferred that level of expectation from products to people. We have such a high expectation of the people around us, there is no way they can compete with that imaginary line. Thus, we are consistently being disappointed by people and are consistently losing self esteem because...

With all of the choices I had, I should have chosen better.

Not all people are a fit for us. That's a truth. There are people in our lives that feel like sandpaper. However, we have to be careful we are not judging because our expectation is too high rather than a person not being a fit. We have to recognize they are humans and the expectation we hold them to is probably far too high to begin with. We have to be careful we're not judging them like we would a bottle of salad dressing.

We owe that much to ourselves.