The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
June 29, 2010

Too Many Choices: Unhappy for Us and the Planet

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Will seventy-five choices of shampoo make us happier or simply less satisfied with the product we do choose and more likely to junk up the planet as we sample the offerings? Take a look at the following photo and consider its ramifications.

store display of sample size products

How do we end up with shelf after shelf of individual sample sized shampoos and lotions and deodorants and toothpastes and shave gels and conditioners and sunscreens, all in their little plastic bottles and tubes? Is it about having too much choice? Or is it really the illusion of choice?

The Spaghetti Sauce Talk

In his famous spaghetti sauce TED talk, Malcolm Gladwell extolls the achievement of Howard Moskowitz who helped Prego, the spaghetti sauce company, realize that there was not just one perfect spaghetti sauce type to aspire to but that consumers wanted to be able to choose what kind of sauce they felt like eating. Basically smooth vs. chunky. Now, thanks to his work, you can go to the grocery store and choose among a hundred different kinds of spaghetti sauce.

But does having more choices of spaghetti sauce really make us happier?

Too Many Choices

A few years ago, Psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote a book called The Paradox of Choice in which he argues that for those of us in industrial societies with material affluence, having too many choices actually makes us less happy.  And here is his TED talk:

Schwartz’s conclusion is that having too many choices can either paralyze us into inaction or can make us less happy about the choices we do make because there are so many other choices we didn’t make. What if one of those others was the better choice?

It looks to me like marketers are on to this idea. No, they don’t want to stop giving us so many choices. Instead, they want to convince us that theirs is the best choice, and in an effort to get us to try their product without feeling we’ve made too much of a commitment, they offer us the sample size. Instead of buying one bottle and wishing we had bought something else, we can buy sample sizes of both. So what if we’re producing even more plastic waste by purchasing many small bottles rather than just one large one? Planet be damned.

Choice Editing

People ask me all the time if I miss being able to buy anything I want. Not buying products in plastic means that my choices are not just significantly limited but almost non-existent. How many choices of shampoo do I have? (A few shampoo bars and a No’Poo method that causes a lot of eyebrow raising.) How many choices of cat litter do I have? One. Swheatscoop. [2016 Update:  Today, my only choice is Integrity cat litter.  Swheatscoop switched to a plastic bag.] How many choices of toothpaste or ketchup or pasta? My choices are edited automatically because I’m just looking for the one with the least plastic.

While shopping yesterday, I stood and looked at shelf after shelf of salad dressing. So many different kinds. And yet none of them came without a plastic seal around the neck. And since salad dressing is not a necessary food, I just didn’t buy any. Simple. And better. Because having fewer choices means I’m not standing and agonizing over which one I would like best. I can move on.

Whose Fault is It?

So in that sense, I believe Schwartz is right. Having fewer choices of products to buy means that I can get on with what’s more important in my life. But then Scwartz goes on to say something I disagree with fundamentally, and it’s this: When there’s only one choice, you can tell yourself that the world is responsible for your decision because it didn’t give you any choice. When there are hundreds of choices, you feel that you are responsible because you could have made a better choice.

I disagree with that premise because I reject the notion that I have to choose from the menu I’m given in the first place. My choices are not chunky vs. smooth. My choice is neither. Or making my own. Or writing to the company and asking for what I want. Or starting a consumer action campaign. Or taking a walk. I think that feeling restricted to the menu companies offer us and the frustration of bumping up against the infrastructure when we try to live our values is what is depressing to many of us. That’s not freedom.  It’s powerlessness.

Marketers are clever. They’ll do what they can to make us feel we are not good enough without their products. And that is another reason for depression. I say, let’s get off that treadmill in the first place. Let’s take back our power and edit our own choices! Instead of standing in the aisle of cleaning products and trying to decide which one is more eco-friendly or will clean more effectively or has a better smell, how about if we said, forget it! I reject your menu. I’m going to stick with baking soda and vinegar because it works and because that way, I can stop fretting about minutia and get on with living.

Related Post: 8 Reasons Why Personal Changes Matter

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50 Comments on "Too Many Choices: Unhappy for Us and the Planet"

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speaking of kitty litter– I noticed that world’s best has changed their packaging, do you know if it’s in a paper bag now? and speaking of sample sizes, I believe they’re giving away free sample coupons. so you say that the boxes of yesterday’s news and feline pine come with a plastic bag inside? I have a bag of yesterday’s news and I’m not sure but I think it’s entirely made of paper. oh and I love the pictures of your cat sitting in the ripped open kitty litter bag, I’m sure that was a lot of fun to deal… Read more »

Rebecca, thank you!

I think I was feeling a little defensive because I hear all the time, “You have too much time on your hands.” But you’re right. Screw that. I’m tired of feeling bad for having time on my hands, and guilty when I’m not always “making use of it.” So thanks for chiming in.

OK… your comment thing says “speak your mind” so here goes. “And lest anyone think I have a lot of free time because I don’t work at my official job full time, consider all the time and energy I put into this blog and my environmental work. It’s another full time job!” The fact that you felt compelled to add these sentences speaks volumes about what is wrong with out society. When did having free time become a crime? It’s like we all (myself included) walk around carrying the banner of “busier than thou”, as if not being busy means… Read more »
Oh, and Nick… exactly. I am living proof of your thought experiment. I only work 3 days per week. Why? Because I have very few expenses. I don’t buy anything. I don’t have a car to maintain. Yes, I have a husband who works full time, but taht just means I get to live with him in a bigger apartment than I could afford on my own. Before we were together, I still only worked 3 days per week, but I lived in a studio, and it was fine. One way that I am lucky is that my employer pays… Read more »
Maybe the problem here is the title of this post. Maybe I should have put a question mark at the end. Because it’s not that I think manufacturers are bad for giving so many choices. That’s what they do. But I do criticize them for getting into the competitive choice game so heavily that they lose sight of the environmental impact of their marketing, which is how I see all those sample sizes. Even at the Green Festival, I was up in the faces of some of the companies that were giving out tiny samples in plastic containers. How is… Read more »
@Pure Mothers and Beth Terry In a consumer-driven society, if many of these products disappeared, what would replace them? People need to earn a living. Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine if all products had the qualities of a table fork. Good ones are made of an indefinitely recyclable material (metal) and with care, can last for a very long time. Now just extend this a little and imagine that they were designed to last indefinitely so that you could bequeath them to your children and they in turn could pass the forks/consumer products/house/car/civilisation etc on to the next generations.… Read more »
meg – i’m pretty sure that IS [or would like to] advocate eliminating many choices – “I don’t think we have the right to trash the planet for convenience or because we didn’t get exactly what we wanted or because our hair might be a little limp or frizzy for a few weeks.” And as for ‘I believe that is EXACTLY what Beth is doing here’ – that’s why I said – KEEP showing them pictures of albatross, etc. – as in, you’ve done it before, keep doing it… That’s right – I can disagree with one thing someone says… Read more »
I think the nugget I got from the post was that it’s good to understand the effect so much choice has on us. We are all under the influence of a powerful marketing machine and it’s a good idea to learn how to step back and observe the way that machine affects our behavior. It is good to understand how it is supposed to work according to the marketing plans companies have in place, and it’s good to understand how it affects our culture as a whole. It’s also worthwhile to understand how it affects you on a personal level.… Read more »

@monkeyjen

“The key is to educate people, educate people, educate people.”

I believe that is EXACTLY what Beth is doing here — unless I forgot the part where she called for multiple choices to be outlawed, including any and all shampoo.

“And none of us needs to buy sample sizes to take on a trip. ” Since when does NEED dictate marketing? You may “completely reject the idea that we are entitled to sample sizes of products” but the simple fact is that those sample sizes are not there because consumers demanded them and feel entitled to have them – they are there because a coporate person / marketing person decided people would buy them. It’s not the same thing. It’s basically, “if you build it, they will come”. I believe the oppposite is also true, if they didn’t build it,… Read more »

Great post! I remember watching the “spaghetti sauce” talk a few months ago and just being peeved by it. The whole thing was profit-motivated and ultra commercialized and really left a bad taste in my mouth. I’ll be watching that second TED clip later today, thanks for the recommendation!

I understand the distinction you are making: not more choice = more packaging, but that more samples = more packaging. In my context I guess, the connection I made was to food – because as a “developing” country, more choice here in Egypt often means more packaging. People are no longer bringing their own bag to buy the only local eggs available, but choosing between several different plastic cartons of eggs. Egypt aspires to be like America – with all those choices (and packages) lining the shelves!

Wow… well after reading the post and all of the comments my head is spinning.

I started to comment, but then I realized that I had WAY too much to say, so I made it into its own post:

Basically I don’t think that more choices make us happier, especially not the kinds of choices that the “Giant Marketing Machine” gives us.

Beth – I can really connect to this post – I think in general there are too many varieties – and that they really only come about because as each company introduces a new choice everyone in their market does the same and then that cycle continues, while marketers rejoice. I am deeply concerned, as you and @Pure Mothers points out, that our economy is based on the perpetual cycle of people buying junk they don’t need – anything to keep the dollar floating from hand to hand. If all the junk were produced from recycled materials would it be… Read more »

I wanted you to know that I love your blog, I am a true fan! AND I gave you a Sunshine Award…

http://sofiasideas.com/2010/06/29/making-me-blush/

I have often found myself trying to decide amongst something of multiple brands. It can be a colossal waste of time as you try to determine which one will best suit your needs. So often it seems like the different brands have such subtle differences that it is hard to tell why I should buy one vs the other. I stay away from malls because I find that it just tempts me to want bright, shiny things that I really don’t need. The last time I was in a mall was last December. Heck… thrift stores tempt me to buy… Read more »
Seems like there are two issues – the number of choices and the single serving size. Both relate to cost – items don’t get a place on the shelf unless they sell or are on closeout. Companies make what they do because the products make a profit. While it may be true that customers don’t demand new items, they do perpetuate those items that are offered that they choose to buy. The system works by companies dreaming up new items and offering them, as Rod Serling used to say “for your consideration”. As for the dizzying array of choices –… Read more »
@Condo Blues I understand that there are times when you can’t please everyone, like in matters of taste, but the problem with many of the choices is that the companies could do better but don’t and we’re left with a lot of dilemmas like whether to buy the organic produce that comes in plastic wrap, or buy the non-organic GMO stuff that isn’t wrapped but comes with other problems. Or, whether to buy the cheap, sweat-shopped produced shoes that hurt my feet but are vegan, or the expensive leather shoes that were made from the skin of a dead animal… Read more »
Ooh, and I have more things to clarify. I’m not saying that more choice = more packaging, unless you throw things away because you don’t like them. I’m saying that sample sizes = more packaging. I’m also not saying we shouldn’t have choices but that we don’t have to be paralyzed by choices. Eleanor said this much more eloquently than I have been able to. “Most of us simply don’t realize that, we’re stuck inside the box. That paralysis over “too many choices”? That’s us bumping our heads against the box we don’t know is there.” EXACTLY! :-)
Meg – The problem is who’s version of “quality than quantity” are we supposed to go with? Yours? Mine? Beth’s? I’m sure we all have something that is our favorite that would not be the desired or preferred method for someone else. Many choices can be overwhelming but the reason that they are there is because a significant number of people are demanding/buying/using those items. It’s the basic economic principle of supply and demand. Supply and demand doesn’t just apply to large corporations. There are a lot of small businesses offering green products and services because there is a demand… Read more »
Beth, what you are describing is not just thinking outside the box to solve problems the greater population seems to be oblivious to, but living outside the box. I’ve lived somewhere where I had the choice of which two sauces I’d like on my white rice for lunch and dinner (with two seperate choices for breakfast). I was lucky, the next village over had literally zero choices – they literally ate every meal the same exact dish prepared the same exact way with the same exact ingredients (aka – food). I visited home while living there once, and nearly had… Read more »
Great Post – I really enjoyed listening to the lectures. I used the spaghetti example at work today to illustrate a point (o; It’s difficult to correlate more choice with more of something – like would people eat less spaghetti sauce if there were only 2 brands and 2 types each (instead of several!) Also, I thought the marketing concepts were revolutionary in terms of delivering products that consumers really want as opposed to assuming what they want. I didn’t know how it correlated to more of something – just that what is out there conforms to what we actually… Read more »
@eileen I think they actually can lead to waste, though not always. I’ve known people who couldn’t decide between products and bought several, only to throw out some before they were all used, whether because the products had gone bad or because they finally realized that they didn’t need a dozen different kinds of shampoos. @Condo Blues I don’t get where Beth is supposedly suggesting that we be “mad” at the companies. She’s just pointing out that more choice isn’t always better, which is common sense. Certainly there is a point where you have too few choices because none of… Read more »
Spot on. Since I started the “no-poo” hair care method, I’ve spent zero minutes standing in front of the hair care section, trying to decide which product is a) best for my hair, b) never tested on animals, c) most ecological d) least offensive to allergy sufferers in my life e) likely not to have a scent that makes ME sick, and f) comes in the most recyclable, environmentally friendly packaging. What’s more, I no longer have a shampoo/conditioner graveyard of nearly full bottles I have to give away. Same could be said for household cleaners, as you so aptly… Read more »

Having multiple choices of shampoo or spaghetti sauce does not decrease the number of bottles used, only the diversity of bottles….and I like different things for different times….example I work at a spa, and we carry a huge array of skin care products…but they all suit different needs…(and they are all organic and pure enough to eat…thank you Eminence)….in fact for someone like me with sensative skin, even though there are lots of products, I have few choices!

So we’re supposed to be mad that companies make products that appeal to different people with different desires or needs? We’re also supposed to mad that companies try to make products that people will like?! I’m sorry I can’t fully get on that bus. Maybe you’ve never lived in an area where the choices were slim to none and the products that were for sale weren’t the type you wanted or needed. Writing to a company and asking for a change of their current product line may result in that company creating a new/revised product that will fit your need… Read more »
@Condo Clues & Eileen, I just want to make sure you realize that I am not saying we should be mad at companies for giving too many choices, although it sounds like that’s what Barry Schwartz is saying. I’m saying that we as consumers don’t have to feel powerless and overwhelmed by so many choices, as he as a psychologist has noticed many people are. And it’s clear from the comments on this post that his findings are true for many people. If you live in an area where there are not enough choices, then this is not a problem… Read more »

I totally agree. We are supposed to want more revel in our choices, but I find the more time I spend in stores or looking at fashion magazines the more I feel I should want. Jewelery, clothes, household items. Since my budget has been cut I have avoided the temptations and have been happier for it.

Thank you once again, I totally agree here! And whats more rewarding than growing it yourself? Nothing, I love to make my own anything I am always so proud of my finished product, with limited waste and healthier to boot!

While talking to a home improvement contractor about possibly remodeling our kitchen, my husband and I laughed when the guy said he hated the period where customers had to make a choice between seventeen different kinds of knobs, cabinet finishes, sink fixtures, etc. He longed for the “old days” when they only got to pick between two.

I read Schwartz’s book when I started my green journey because of the lack of real “green” choices. I was frustrated at the increased organic choices that were packaged in plastic. So my choices became easier, like you said. I made my own cleaners, sought out the one non-plastic, organic choice available. It made my life easier. And, if I didn’t like the taste of that 1 choice, I made my own. I hate seeing so many rows of trail-sized anything. My question is this: In a consumer-driven society, if many of these products disappeared, what would replace them? People… Read more »
Great TED talk examples ~ thank you Beth. I was born in the 50’s so have experienced the explosion of ‘choice’. I am a person who used to be paralyzed by too many choices. What has made a difference in my life is when I clearly defined my values. Most of the time when I make a decision about something I look to my highest values; health, family/friends, fun, ease, contribution (are some). If what I’m considering doesn’t fit my values I say “no”. When I stray from this system I typically experience dissatisfaction. The order of my values will… Read more »
Whenever I return to the States and must venture into a large grocery story, I get completely overwhelmed by the choice! On my last visit, a walk through a Super Walmart nearly did me in. I had to return to the front doors for at least 10 minutes before I could continue on my quest for a simple thermometer. The lack of choice here in Egypt is a blessing in disguise. Many foreign residents are frustrated by the lack of options, but I relish it. Food stores the size of Texas closets make shopping quick and hassle-free! Unfortunately, this is… Read more »
I agree on the too many choices, especially for personal care. BAH! I never much liked being a slave to beauty in the first place. Baking soda’s pretty much eliminated my need for shampoo and deodorant, and I have some tubes of Tom’s toothpaste waiting to be used little bit by little bit. The hardest choice I make right now is which local soap to use, which I get plastic free from one of the locally owned grocery stores. I’d get it from the farmer’s market but… the plastic wrap :<. Food… Well, anyone know where to find largish containers… Read more »

There aren’t as many choices round here fortunately. Unfortunately that means I either buy in plastic or starve as there is only so much I can grow myself.

I have to say that plastic has always been my number one hate waste wise and that this blog has simply reinforced my general thinking.

I do my best and try to avoid one use plastic whilst allowing that some plastic is useful and will get reused for a very long time. (Some of my plant pots are into their 40s).

viv in nz

Personally I like chunky garden mushroom ragu… the best. And I thank Dr. Moskowitz for the concept. But as far as having too many choices— I don’t think there is. Because basically I have the choice of yes or no. Yes I am going to buy Ragu Chunky Garden Mushroom spaghetti sauce and No I am not going to buy any other brand. Personally I like choice.

my husband often says “there’s always the third option: do nothing”

I think this all the time… I’m dumbfounded why/how grocery stores became packed with all these similar products… shelf after shelf of the same product with a different name… I always think about how small a grocery store could be if they just condensed… ooohh… and cars. How many different cars/trucks/SUVs choices do we really need? What happened to the days where a car company made 1 truck, 1 car, etc??? Too many choices. What happened to quality vs. quantity???? I have never seen that many sample products!! Could it be the carry-on bag flight rules that have created so… Read more »

Very well said. I totally agree. I thought Yesterday’s News (cat litter) didn’t contain plastic though…am I missing something?

Gringo A Go-Go » Blog Archive » Plast-ick

[…] a fan and enemy of the Fake Plastic Fish blog for the same reason: Beth makes me think, hard. Her post today struck a nerve especially. Something I have noticed as I get increasingly involved in gardening is […]

I’ve been saying recently that since going vegan, I’ve been happier about my choices. It sounded counterintuitive, but I guess this explains why it’s been so good! Granted, I still have a lot of choices. There are more than a few excellent restaurants here that are vegan-friendly. I’ve found several online stores that offer a variety of vegan personal care products beyond what I can find locally. And there are plenty of things that I can for fun that don’t involve exploiting animals. But, the choices usually seem a bit less infinite. And even when there’s only one good choice,… Read more »

hear, hear!

Just today I stepped into the largest building I’d ever been in. It was a Walmart and I was both astonished and sickened by the excess surrounding me. It’s been 18 months since I have restricted my shopping to farmers markets and small, local shops. I had forgotten how overwhelming that many choices were. I am all for your idea of shopping “off the menu.” It’s far more sane for me.

I read your blog a lot and just wanted to say that you inspire me constantly. You live what you believe and you back up your beliefs with solid research and commentary. I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of legacy and the way you live your life keeps coming to mind. You ARE living your legacy and I just wanted to say thank you. Keep writing and keep living the way you do. It is people like you who make me believe in hope.

i like the point you’ve made here. i feel the same way about my recent choice to quit using chemical products on my body (and in my food). now when going to the store to make a purchase, i don’t end up making impulse buys based on pretty packaging or enticing claims. i can walk right past the isles full of chemical-laden “beauty solutions” without even being tempted to browse. advertisements don’t work on me anymore. it has been incredibly liberating. since i’m commenting, i want to tell you that your blog has really made me think about how wasteful… Read more »
I am Canadian, and we have fewer choices here. Still too many, quite likely, but definitely fewer than in the US. I have felt totally overwhelmed in American department stores because I just can’t wrap my head around the options. After that experience, I really do believe that limitless options are over-rated. However, that’s not really your point. Your point is that we don’t have to choose from the options we’re given anyway. I agree with that, for sure. I do no ‘poo, and I wash my face with honey. I wouldn’t have it any other way. When I see… Read more »

I think that sample sizes are more a result of the travel industry than anything else. Especially now [post-911] with the 3-1-1 rule.

Its like feeding kids…ask what they want and be prepared for blank stares or a meltdown whereas give them a choice of two items and they should be able to decide with more confidence and happiness. There is also something to be said about making decisions at the right time. Thats why menu planning works for some. Instead of staring blankly at the pantry after a long day or work when you are tires and frustrated and have low blood sugar you make a plan in advance at a time when you are physically and mentally more able to decide.… Read more »

well said…was discussing the very same issue with my sibling yest…it pains to see that people equate choices and the number with quality of life :(

I don’t like too much choice, I felt that way once when I went to buy band-aids….I shouldn’t be overwhelmed by band-aid choices!?

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