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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/17389/does-freedom-of-choice-actually-hinder-rather-than-help-us/

Does freedom of choice actually hinder rather than help us?

June 22, 2011 by

In the words of the classic troll, “I’ll just leave this here”…

Professor Renata Salecl explores the paralysing anxiety and dissatisfaction surrounding limitless choice. Does the freedom to be the architects of our own lives actually hinder rather than help us? Does our preoccupation with choosing and consuming actually obstruct social change?

I’ve always loved the presentation of these whiteboard-animated lectures, though most of the economics pieces are predictably anti-producer/business/etc. I though this one in particular about “choice” might spark some interesting debate among the Austrians.



jon June 22, 2011 at 4:03 pm

looks like another victim of the public school system.

Declan June 22, 2011 at 4:05 pm

In the words of a classic troll, “Frankfurt School nonsense…”

They could do with reading some Schumpeter.

Ohhh Henry June 22, 2011 at 4:18 pm

Does the freedom to be the architects of our own lives actually hinder rather than help us? Does our preoccupation with choosing and consuming actually obstruct social change?

I can answer these questions with an even simpler question. If you give other people the power to make decisions for you, do those people tend to use the power in their own interest, or will they sacrifice their own interests so that they can make your life better instead?

If you don’t experience anxiety and dissatisfaction with the decisions that other people force upon you then you understand nothing about human nature.

Wandering Cynic June 22, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Very true. It’s like the old joke:

“Comrades! After the revolution we will all eat strawberries in cream!”

One man raises his hand at the back of the crowd.

“But I don’t like strawberries in cream.”

The speaker simply leans forward on the podium and sneers “I SAID, after the revolution we will ALL eat strawberries in cream!”

Mike W June 22, 2011 at 4:59 pm

The only good things I can take away from this 10 minute pile of garbage:

A) She recognizes 1 praxeological tenet, that every choice involves opportunity cost of that which was not chosen.

B) The last 30 second theory on why social change is difficult today, the fact that even under our current system, people have ‘something to lose’ and that makes them risk averse / less radical.

J. Murray June 22, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Sounds like a Buridan’s Ass argument. Too much choice causes some sort of paralysis. Yet, somehow, I can go through an entire supermarket and get two weeks of food in 20 minutes despite the endless choices. Maybe if we’re completely devoid of life experience and third party recommendations we’d spend an inordinate amount of time on choice, but in the real world, choice is wonderful. It’s what keeps costs down and quality high. There are plenty of alternatives if my current choice decides to cut the quality or hike the price.

MB June 23, 2011 at 12:42 pm


Who the heck is ‘horrified’ by the number of choices at the grocery story.

And not all of us make all or many of our choices based on what others think. Some of us don’t give a rat’s *ss about that.

JTG June 22, 2011 at 6:29 pm

To me, the whole presentation seemed like a depiction (and indictment) of the female experience of choice as it relates to social norms, pressures, etc.

Maybe because gender roles have become less fixed, the ‘malaise’ of society is in some sense due to choice…

V June 22, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Personally, I don’t identify with these comments at all. I’ve never walked into a grocery store and felt overwhelmed. However, I’ve met people like that. In my opinion, she’s taking the symptoms of a small group of confused and insecure people and applying them to society as a whole.

One really good example of what she’s talking about seems to occur in the army. I know so many people who joined with the following logic, “Well, I didn’t know what to do with my life and they gave me discipline and a career.” In a sense, they completely handed over their freedom and got a fairly bad deal just to avoid making choices on their own. However, most of us are just fine navigating choices to find our careers and own self-discipline.

However, with the army example, I guess she’s correct. They’re “organized” and probably not creating the sort of “social change” that she’s thinking about.

Kavius June 23, 2011 at 6:08 am

I’m going to take V’s point a little further. I don’t believe she is taking just “a small group” under consideration, I believe she is taking herself under consideration. This seems to be a bit of personal bias on her part.

An individual raised in a society full of choice will have practiced choosing from a very young age (what flavour of ice cream do you want, you can have one toy, etc). She was raised in a Soviet Block Country, where most of the consumer decisions were made on her behalf by a central authority. Coming out from that “guiding hand” and given the right to choose, she (like the newly released prisoner or discharged soldier) feels overwhelmed by the decisions she is forced to make. She has never done this and is unpracticed at it, the same will hold true for many of her peers.

Another thing to consider is that individuals on this website may downplay the anxiety associated with choice: people on this site are as biased as the lecturer. Mises.org is strongly focused on individual choice, and is therefore going to attract people who are inclined to having personal choice (and lots of it). The anxiety we experience over making a choice is likely significantly lower than the general population, otherwise we wouldn’t think unlimited choice is a good idea. Further, with the strong cultural belief of freedom of choice on this site, the “belief in the belief” may cause embarrassment in agreeing with a contrarian view.

The author’s points regarding choice anxiety, and peer pressure, are interesting and have implications for proponents of individualism. Based on personal observation, I would have to agree that some (many?) people lack the intelligence to make rational merit based choices and instead will choose based on fear of social stigma. It appears that the author’s personal bias creates difficulty considering individual behaviour, causing her to focus instead on herd mentality. I think I will have to watch the lecture several more times (or read a transcript), to focus on the facts, and filter out her bias.

Just one person’s, very biased, opinion ;)

J. Murray June 23, 2011 at 10:39 am

Kavius (addressing this directly because the reply system is doing something different so I don’t know if it will end up in the proper thread),

It’s not necessarily downplaying anxiety, but more of a reply of, “So, what of it?” Sure, choice may be a scary thing to someone used to living a regimented life, but that is no excuse to argue against it. The argument is that choice is difficult for a person used to living in a choiceless society, the answer is not that choice is bad, but to ensure we do not permit a choiceless society to exist in the first place. Those making the transition who are scared have options to avoid having to make choices at all. A major feature of a choice-driven economy is that the 10% of the most informed population of any given product will drive the consumer habits of the other 90%. This enthusiast population is the one taking all the time to sift through the choices and make the educated decisions. Their educated decisions leaves behind a trail of information anyone else can pick up and follow as well as presenting the enthusiast choice as the typically best promoted and offered product on store shelves. I know remarkably little about motor oil or clothing. Instead of stressing myself in the auto store or clothing store, I can type in Google, “Best motor oil” or “best running shoes” and get an answer almost immediately. Google even conveniently sorts it by the most popular, which typically means most trusted, source for the information.

This is what’s so great about a choice-driven society, you never really have to make one yourself! It’s done already by a myriad of consumers and if you’re unsure about a purchase, there are others out there that have made the purchase, even of competing brands, and have created a preference you could easily follow. Even better, when engaging in this kind of activity, the person anxious with variety will start to discover the methods and techniques people accustomed to broad consumer choices use to make choices and how it can be done effortlessly. This is a painless path from state dependence to self reliance by using true experts in the field.

This is why it’s so easy to find significant umbrage with the above presentation. There’s no bias involved on the libertarian side – people who don’t like making choices can still live that way and never once have to say that choice is bad. The above presentation say that because choice is scary to some people, we must limit it. The real answer is to introduce people to choice so that they not only become accustomed to it, but begin to understand the true value and purpose of it. Western societies, despite enjoying tremendous choice, make it too easy for people to hide from it, such as Professor Renata Salecl, who would rather hide behind state privelege and central planning than deal with temporary discomfort. Complaining about the fear of choice and attacking the agents of variety is no better than an obese person blaming McDonalds for his condition while sitting on a couch all day eating junk food.

Kavius June 23, 2011 at 1:13 pm

J. Murray, I agree.

My “downplaying” comment was specifically directed at those who would dismiss her comments as not worth responding too. While I agree with the “So What” assessment (I phrased it as “why is this my problem?” to my wife), I think that dismissing it out of hand is problematic. Many people do feel this anxiety, and when presented with an excuse (like Salecl’s), are quick to buy into a line of reasoning that relieves them of their burden of responsibility. We must not downplay the problems raised in presentations such as this, but instead address them with well argued rebuttals (such as yours) to force people behaving/thinking stupidly (such as Professor Renata Salecl’s) to confront their problems directly.

Kavius June 23, 2011 at 1:27 pm

Addendum: That choice anxiety exists was the eye opener for me. As she discussed the problem, I could see a thousand examples of people in my life clamoring for more government action. In every case, I could see the “Choice Anxiety” present in their motivation.

MB June 23, 2011 at 12:44 pm


I would have to agree with this assessment. I had somewhat the same thought in the back of my mind, and think you enunciated it perfectly.

Jim June 23, 2011 at 1:27 pm

This is a pervasive cultural problem for recent immigrants; my Russian wife and her 20+ friends suffer from that problem 8+ years later, and they all struggle to perform simple tasks without help, frozen by choice and lamenting the loss of the nanny state. Most of them can’t hold a job.

By arguing that the issue is capitalistic structure, she is inherently making the argument that ‘choice’ is better limited for the well-being of humans. But who will make the choice of how much freedom to limit? Her implied sociological solution guarantees that some people will necessarily be anxious, for not everyone will be happy with her new society’s limits.

MB June 27, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Hmmm, yeah.

A friend of mine was telling me he had befriended a family of recent emigrants from Russia (to help him keep up his russian language skills), and told of taking them out to a buffet place (your typical ‘all you can eat’ place). He had to assure them that, yes, they can go up for seconds. And thirds.

noah June 22, 2011 at 11:35 pm

“… this ideology of choice, which forces us to perceive ourself [sic] being guilty for the failures in our life…”

It FORCES us? We have no choice? You would think being a slave to choice would provide… well, a bit more choice.

Jonatan K June 23, 2011 at 12:15 am

Noah, in case you didn’t notice, that was Marx, pure and simple.

Kavius June 23, 2011 at 6:35 am

That’s what was bothering me! When she said that the members of the polit-buro had never read Marx, she stated it with a tone of regret. The whole part with the bees working for the bears… she could not conceive of deriving satisfaction from a job well done…

She only started reading Marx after the iron curtain came down, and sees that what she was living is not what was promised. Now she thinks, “If only we had followed his guidelines, we’d all be rolling in puppies and roses!”

Satisfied workers just don’t understand that they are being used; happy people just don’t know they should be miserable.

noah June 23, 2011 at 8:39 am

“Capitalism is actually creating some kind of a subjectivity which starts, in a way, ruining him or herself…”

That might be a hint!

The Wobbly Guy June 23, 2011 at 4:49 am

How many people are capable of making choices beneficial to themselves? In a world of endless choices, people might just opt for the worst ones when their mental stamina and brainpower run out. There’s some scientific evidence to suggest this might be the case for some people. How many? That’s going to have implications for whether a libertarian society is even possible given certain… uhm… sociological parameters.

There is a free market solution in Sailer’s post tho.

noah June 23, 2011 at 8:36 am

Salecl seems to be working backwards from the theme that freedom short-circuits people’s desire to fight for social change. But wouldn’t any fight for social change also involve a concentrated use of brainpower, and in itself also involve an abundance of decision-making requirements?

I think history shows that people fighting for social change can easily become overwhelmed by choice and they often abandon rational thought in favor of letting “leaders” and “experts” make decisions for them. They become slaves to the cause, just as free people become slaves to the “ideology of choice.”

Peter Surda June 23, 2011 at 7:49 am

In Soviet Russia, the state chooses you!

Mushindo June 23, 2011 at 9:05 am

I havent watched the slideshow, ( firewall issues), but I think I get the gist just from the blog post and context.

Ley me acknowledge that I am often overwhelmed by a too-wide choice, and sometimes end up not taking anything thats on offer, electing to either go without if its a frippery, or to think a bit more about shortlisting is its a serious purchase. Evo devo eco research is starting to uncover some of the cognitive wiring that can lead to choice paralysis and this is useful research, and it doesnt surprise given that the ancestral context in which we evolved mostly threw up binary choices for our ancestors to deal with immediately It may be that our cognitive machinery has not yet adapted to a world of fantastic abundance and practically limitless choice, which for 99,9% of human existence hasn’t existed . But what of it? none of this means that more choice is a Bad Thing. Dammit, nobody else has the right to step in and constrain choices on my behalf. Nobody else is in a position to decide how many alternatives should be placed before me.

The market has a lovely way of meeting human needs, and in so far as limitless choice strains one’s cognition in ways not encountered in earlier generations, the service of focussing one’s attention among myriad options is no exception. A common example: From the thousands of books published every month, Amazon does an excellent job of sifting out just those that are likely to interest me, and draws them to my attention. I don’t have to page through reams of dross to hunt for nuggets, but if Im interested, I have the option to browse more widely. And at the end of it all, I am the one who decides whether to buy anything or not. Its still MY choice

Some see this sort of profiled, targeted marketing as a bad thing too, but for the life of me I cant understand why. How can a company making me aware ( at no charge, one might add) of things that I am likely to be interested in, possibly be a bad thing? To object to that sort of marketing is to acknowledge that one is too stupid to make one’s own decisions. Then again, I suppose that any advocate of any nanny-statist intervention anywhere is doing just that: confessing their lack of faith in themselves.

Kavius June 23, 2011 at 9:37 am

“But what of it? … Dammit, nobody else has the right to step in and constrain choices on my behalf”

Nail + Head

“I suppose that any advocate of any nanny-statist intervention anywhere is doing just that: confessing their lack of faith in themselves.”

The Prohibitionist must always be a person of no moral character; for he cannot even conceive of the possibility of a man capable of resisting temptation. (Aleister Crowley, The Green Goddess, 1918)

Ron Finch June 23, 2011 at 10:46 am

The problems she targets are due to peer pressure, not choice. I expect that Liberty will eventually enable people to put responses to Human Action in proper perspective.

Sarah June 23, 2011 at 11:08 am

Of course at times choice can cause anxiety, and there is always a loss of what you didn’t choose. However, that is part of the human experience and trying to make it disappear by limiting or not allowing choice strikes a blow to our God-given agency to choose. We must have opposition in all things – we must have choices or we simply are cogs in a wheel. Even if some are paralyzed and fearful of choosing their own destiny, that doesn’t mean that our ability to choose should be stripped from us. Decisions determine destiny – we must be able to choose.

RCnottheCola June 23, 2011 at 1:02 pm

I do agree with the video in the sense that we have now live in “The Age of Cowardice” (i.e. am unwilling to stand up for my beliefs so I seek the guns of the state to enforce my morals on my neighbors, family, and friends.) There are constant warnings to ‘be careful’ instead of ‘good luck.’ While those that frequent this site seek increased freedom, all generations are increasing their state loving disciples much faster than we are gaining those that search for liberty. The tea party is a complete failure and the politicians are increasingly worshiped for imposing regulation. We are part of a population that is scared to take action but terrified of taking no action. Capitalism is not a cause of this as the increase of fear is just as prevalent in all the different market organizations.

Jim June 23, 2011 at 1:09 pm

We encourage Ms. Salecl to join with her wine chooser and other folks unable to withstand the rigors of choice, bereft in a post-modern, multi-cultural society, to form a small safe haven somewhere (capitalism will embrace her right to do so. Will her version of communism?), interacting with the world from that ‘safe’ haven in any manner they desire. We trust the choices posed by her community’s structure will not paralyze her.

Surely their success will act as a testament to the superiority of their thoughts, and spread throughout the world. But if she can not persuade us without threat of physical harm, then I suggest she has not uncovered any ‘structural’ or sociological problem. She is just neurotic, even by the twisted thoughts of the Freud she cites.

Ned Netterville June 23, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Too dumb and boring to watch through; definitely won’t pass it on, not even to my dog.

Jose June 23, 2011 at 7:40 pm

This woman is trying to implant in our brains the idea that a “good” communism is possible, everything else is just catchy padding.

Here in the Philippines, I am watching every day the “anxiety of choice”, should I feed myself and my family or should I join a revolutionary movement so someone else is forced to feed me?

Fortunately most of them choose to feed themselves even if this includes inspecting my garbage.

noah June 24, 2011 at 11:32 am

After reading Doug French’s piece on battered-homeowner syndrome, based on battered-spouse syndrome, I have a new take on this.

Salecl’s nonsense seems to be built around the fact that every choice involves a loss, so access to more choice mean experiencing more loss. We are being “battered” by freedom of choice. By experiencing the repeated cycles of choice/loss we may develop a “learned helplessness,” and our motivation to “escape” (=fight for social change) diminishes as we become increasingly passive. (Some of us mistakenly confuse this state with happiness and autonomy, fools that we are – we masochists enjoy being abused by freedom of choice!)

The constant cycles of choice and loss may result in the following beliefs:
The choice/loss victim
- believes that the loss inherent in choice is his or her fault,
- has an inability to place the responsibility for loss elsewhere,
- fears choice in his/her life and/or the lives of his/her children, and
- has an irrational belief that the loss resulting from choice is omnipresent and omniscient.

The solution is obvious: a kinder, gentler totalitarianism.

noah June 24, 2011 at 11:35 am

I might add, a kinder, gentler totalitarianism already exists. It’s called religion. Perhaps Salecl has heard of it.

sweatervest June 24, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Here comes a dictatorship to protect us from ourselves.

The only reason why limitless choice is a bad thing for anyone is because they had their capacity to live their own lives crushed by the state through schooling. It’s called domestication. Obviously any animal that is still around in the wild can survive in the wild, but once they become domesticated they would die hopelessly if left to their own devices.

I know the feeling: the feeling that everything is provided for me and it just needs to “work out”. Taking it on myself was a scary thing and it took me years to root out the dependency-mindset that was grown in my by school (i.e. it’s everyone else’s fault, my life isn’t perfect and that’s not “fair”). I cannot describe the feeling of having a huge weight lifted off of me, not because everything is working out, but simply because I stopped expecting everything to work out without me actively reaching for my goals.

First make people dependents, and then they’ll actually suffer from being free.

noah June 25, 2011 at 8:25 am

“First make people dependents, and then they’ll actually suffer from being free.”

That is what the welfare state, or the nanny state, has done. As the state encourages people to become more dependent, how many want to fight it? Many (most?) people choose the state making life “easier” over choosing the “burden” of personal responsibility. They choose slavery.

MB June 27, 2011 at 2:37 pm

FYI- Lee Doran, who does the “How the World Works” series on YouTube, is planning a critique of this video. He’s done some other good ones (like the one on the horrible “Story of Stuff” video), so look forward to this one.

MB June 29, 2011 at 10:31 am

Lee Doran has done his critique of this video.

Here it is: http://youtu.be/f6ti8-a-V8w


John James July 15, 2011 at 8:18 am

Actually, Lee had two videos on this…see them both here in the Mises thread where they were discussed.

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