Choice Anxiety

Living in a culture of unlimited choice leads to dissatisfaction and anxiety, says professor Renata Salecl. The world of limitless options is immobilizing.1 The resulting “choice anxiety” can manifest itself in various ways. Here are two symptoms Salecl references:

Addiction to idealism. In a sea of countless options we seek to cope with dissatisfaction by acquiring new careers, new partners, new apps, new devices, new service providers, new organizational systems… Each “new object” or “new way” promises to move us closer to some kind of ideal state. The problem is that there are increasingly more new options — and thus new notions of the ideal — which results in a crippling, seismic addiction to “the next thing.”

Constant loss. The more decisions you make in a day the more loss you experience: when you choose one possibility you tend to lose another possibility by natural consequence. Salecl suggests that since capitalist culture is built on the expansion and multiplication of choice, we live with an increasing pressure of anxiety lurking unsuspectingly behind every decision we make. How do we tame and quell this anxiety? We keep trying to make “ideal choices” to achieve the “ideal life” and the cycle perpetuates itself further.

Option Erasers

Some people find it logical and helpful to make once-for-all decisions, “final choices,”2 or pre-choose their “sensible defaults”3 in advance, usually relating to specific areas of their purchasing and consumptive habits. For example, when they need a new pen they do not allow themselves to consider any options except for the brand and model of pen they always purchase. The anxiety of making the choice is thus averted.

Similarly, there are authors of “Not-To-Do” lists4 or “Stop-Doing” lists.5 These disciplines — in terms of choice anxiety — are a proactive approach to eliminate as many competing “options” as possible. Think of them as intentional mental gymnastics to free the cognitive facilities for other things; mental tools designed to intentionally wipe out choices before they have the opportunity to confront the prospective chooser.

(Now you have to choose if you want to eliminate choices from your life…)

Exercising these “option-erasing disciplines” comes with a sizable price tag: lost possibilities. When you choose a ritual, routine, practice or product at the cost of all others you are intentionally self-limiting your exposure to other options. At first it might seem like Salecl’s theory of “constant loss” rears it’s ugly head in anger, “What about the better options that you’ll never experience?” But that is simply the antagonist of discipline; for discipline — regardless of century, technology or era — has always been the commitment to choose one thing at the expense of all others.

Today, many people call this skill “productivity”, but I still contend that it is simply self-control.

  1. Renata Salecl, RSA Animate – Choice, YouTube, June 16, 2011 []
  2. Patrick Rhone, Final Choices, November 5, 2010 []
  3. Jamie Phelps, Final Choices and Sensible Defaults, November 6, 2010; Patrick Rhone, Sensible Defaults, November 8, 2010 []
  4. Tim Ferriss, The Not-To-Do List: 9 Habits to Stop Now, August 16th, 2007 []
  5. Jim Collins, Best New Year’s Resolution? A ‘Stop Doing’ List, USA Today, December 30, 2003 []