09 May 2012

On the Paradox of Choice

94 results for "hiking shoes" - screenshots from the Décathlon sportswear specialized store

We live in a world where we have plenty of choices to make. Which is presented as a good thing, because being able to choose between different alternatives means having more freedom, right? For example, choosing what to study or where to work, where to live, what hobbies to spend time on... But I am wondering if there are not too many choices today.

Isn't it oppressing and time consuming to compare between 100 alternatives rather than 10? Is it really necessary to have so many alternatives?

This questioning all started when I decided to go hiking again, long after having moved to a bigger city. So, I went to a sportswear store to buy a pair of hiking shoes, none of mine fitting well for that kind of exercise. I was hoping to find the same kind of shoes that my father used to have, strong leather hiking shoes, naively thinking that there was only one kind of these.

Only, to my horror, when I searched for "hiking shoes", there were no less than 5 types of "hiking" and nearly 100 different possible shoes. At that moment, I didn't feel "free" to have a choice, I felt completely lost. I don't know the first thing about hiking, I just want sturdy shoes so I can hike for hours without hurting myself. What if I make the wrong choice? What if I end up with shoes that hurt my feet when I hike and need to buy another pair? Isn't too much choice bringing stress?

I have found a very interesting TED video on the subject (yes, TED again, it's a mine of interesting information...), called "the paradox of choice":

He seems to have had the same problem as me, but with a pair of jeans. What I find particularly interesting in that video, is how he demonstrates that the responsibility of the choice has shifted from the professional to the customer, giving the alarming example of US doctors who let their patients choose between several courses of action to heal their disease. So what does it mean for us as customers? If we, who don't know anything about the subject - as compared to an expert - have to make the choice ourselves, how do we make an informed choice?

Without going as far as the medecine field, even for everyday material purchases, there used to be small specialized stores with owners experts in their field who would give their customers advice on what to choose depending on their needs. For example, in a bookstore, people were able to advice us on books we might like, there were some music stores in which we were advised on the hi-fi material and CDs, electronic stores for TVs... Today, we have nothing but big diversified retailers which salesmen are ususally more interested in their sales bonuses than the customer's needs, and probably don't have the fraction of the expertise needed anyway.

So do we have to become "experts" in a field in order to make an informed choice? How do we know where to find relevant information about the products we are looking to buy? (ie. objective information, not advertisement or sponsored articles). Or should we head back to whatever specialized shops still remain, trading a higher price for high quality customer service? What do you think about the paradox of choice?

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