In 1830, Alexis de Tocqueville commented that, In America I have seen the freest and best educated of men in circumstances the happiest to be found in the world; yet it seemed to me that a cloud habitually hung on their brow, and they seemed serious and almost sad even in their pleasures. (Democracy in America, Harper & Row, 1969, page 536)
What makes life so difficult? Why do so many walk around in our world of technology and convenience with clouds hung on their brow?
I am referring to life before Covid.
We have so much freedom, so many things to choose from. We want the ultimate Geulah, of course, but what more could we want in the meantime?
Perhaps the answer is that sometimes what we want, or need, is less.
Marbeh nechasim, marbeh daageh, the more we have the more we are stressed. Hillel listed many other excesses that lead to difficulties in life. Recently, we’ve learned of one more. Excess choices.
Only once in Chumash are we explicitly given a choice.
hachayim v'hamoves nosati l'foneicho, habrachah v'hakloloh; uvocharta bachayim,
I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life. (Devarim 30:19)
A choice between two things. In this case, a no-brainer.
What helps you and your child make choices that are not so obvious?
Intuitively, most people think that the more choices that are available, the more likely you or your child will find what they really want.
Intuition is sometimes wrong.
It is a common supposition in modern society that the more choices, the better.
In an experiment, consumers shopping at a grocery store encountered a tasting booth that displayed either a limited (6) or an extensive (24) selection of different flavors of jam.
Two research assistants, dressed as store employees, invited passing customers to "come try our jams." Shoppers encountered one of two displays. On the table were either 6 (limited-choice condition) or 24 (extensive-choice condition) different jams. Consumers were allowed to taste as many jams as they wished.
To what extent does having extensive choice initially seem desirable? Of the 242 customers who passed the extensive selection display of jams, 60% actually stopped at the booth. In contrast, of the 260 customers who passed the limited-selection display of jams, only 40% stopped. Thus, consumers who encountered the extensive-choice condition were more attracted to the booth than consumers exposed to the limited-choice condition, suggesting that the variety provided in the extensive-choice condition was initially more attractive.
One might imagine that consumers who encountered 24 different jams would sample more flavors than would those who encountered 6 different varieties. In fact, however, there were no significant differences. Consumers in the extensive-choice condition sampled an average of 1.50 jams, whereas consumers in the limited-choice condition sampled an average of 1.38 jams.
Is the initial attractiveness of extensive choice also reflected in subsequent purchasing behavior? Our findings suggest not: Nearly 30% of the consumers in the limited-choice condition subsequently purchased a jar of jam; in contrast, only 3% of the consumers in the extensive-choice condition did so. Thus, consumers initially exposed to limited choices proved considerably more likely to purchase the product than consumers who had initially encountered a much larger set of options.
These findings are striking. Having "too much" choice seems to have hampered their later motivation to buy.
When people have "too many" options to consider, they simply strive to end the choice-making ordeal by finding a choice that is merely satisfactory, rather than optimal. Doing otherwise would demand more effort than seems justified by the prospective increase in utility or satisfaction.
Some have referred to this phenomenon as "the tyranny of choice1." Although having more choices might appear desirable, it may sometimes have detrimental consequences for human motivation.
Interviews with several hundred U.S. citizens suggest that modern Americans are uneasy about their current life decisions--that they do not seem to know whether they are doing the right things with their lives, or even what those "right things" are.
Our findings demonstrate that the offer of overly extensive choices in relatively trivial choice-making contexts can have significant demotivating effects, but perhaps the phenomenon of choice overload may be further exacerbated in contexts (such as decisions about major stock purchases or alternative medical treatments) in which (a) the costs associated with making the "wrong" choice, or even beliefs that there are truly "wrong" choices, are much more prominent, and/or (b) substantial time and effort would be required for choosers to make truly informed comparisons among alternatives. In the present studies, care was taken to select tasks for which "right" and "wrong" choices would be subjective and for which the effort involved in making a choice would be largely a function of personal preferences. If one were to compare the present contexts to those in which the choosers perceived there to be significantly "better" and "worse" choices, in domains of personal significance, we might expect even more substantial choice overload effects.
(From: When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing? Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2000, Vol. 79, No. 6, 995-1006)
We have it easy. We and our children have b’chira chafshis in addition to the example given in Devarim. Often we have more than two choices available. But the Torah made it easy for us by limiting our choices to a range delineated by Halacha and Hashkafa.
Our role is to present Torah as structure, not stricture, to offer limited b’chira to our children, not hefkarus. We do this best by maintaining our boundaries and making them explicit so that our children understand the choices we make. The nachas comes when they choose to emulate us.
1The Tyranny of Choice, Barry Schwartz, Scientific American Mind, December 2004
Rabbi Ackerman is the author of Confident Parents, Competent Children, in Four Seconds at a Time
Available at bookstores and on Amazon.
He can be reached at 718-344-6575