Last Friday I went to a burger restaurant in Crows Nest called The Counter. Aside from being all about serving natural produce, the menu system is specific and invites you to ‘build your own’ meal. The concept isn’t entirely original but the menu is broken down in to 6 sections; type of meat, the weight of your meat, basic sides (lettuce, chilli capsicums etc), special sides (beacon, egg), type of bun and sauces. Then of course you have the sides menu, the drinks menu and the desert menu. Each of these little sections contains between 5 and 18 options. All in all you can choose one of 312, 120 burger combinations. This isn’t accidental, in fact it’s one of their main selling points. The pitch being that you will have a unique and different meal every time you visit the restaurant, unlike some of the other burger joints in the world.
So with 312, 120 different possibilities it should be damn near impossible for me to walk away feeling unsatisfied. How could I be? With such an abundance of choice I should have been able to find the perfect burger combination for me. But the truth is I walked out feeling a little less than happy. Not unhappy, but not happy either.
I am meant to feel liberated by this excess of choice and by my ability to choose freely. The scale is relative: the more choices I have, the freer I should feel and freedom is something we value very highly. So why did I walk away feeling discontent? Barry Schwartz gave a TED talk on the ‘Paradox of Choice’ way back in July 2005. He also wrote a book of the same title which argues that choice has made us not freer but “more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied”. His idea being that the excessive amount of choices we are faced with on a daily basis actually works to “erode our psychological well being”. At The Counter I was presented with so many different options that it took me 10 times longer to choose what I wanted and once I had finally settled it was that much easier for me to believe that I could have chosen a better option, that my burger choice (1 of 312, 120 possible combinations) could have been the wrong one. “Would this have been better with tomato? Maybe I should have gone for the Garlic Aoilie instead of the Chilli Sauce?”
When faced with such an intimidating number of desirable choices we begin to consider “hypothetical trade-offs”. We begin to evaluate our options in terms of missed opportunities instead of the opportunities potential. Schwartz is basically saying that a choice overload, such as the one I experienced at The Counter, can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them. Logically we assume that amongst such a large number of choices exists the perfect option but by virtue of the fact that there are so many options, the chances of us choosing the right one is significantly decreased. With so many choices our expectations are unrealistically high and Schwartz tells us that this can make you “blame yourself for any and all of your failures”. In the long run this can lead to “decision-making paralysis, anxiety, and perpetual stress”.
While I didn’t walk out of The Counter with clinical depression, it’s easy imagine what kind of effect this gigantic amount of choice could have over time. Every day I am faced with decisions involving countless amount of choices and potential outcomes. I don’t think solitude is the answer but I definitely think living in the City is both corrosive and invigorating at the same time.