The Slave-ish Freedom of Choice

I know that slaveish wasn’t a word before just now.

So Many Choices

This is only after you decide which grocery store you’re going to…


I just got back from a work trip to Denver for the Fire Rescue International conference.  Denver was extraordinary in every definition of that word I can think of.  As far as weather is concerned, you’d have a hard time beating that area; and with a 30 minute drive from downtown, you can go fly fishing in the mountains.  On the other hand, I’ve never seen/smelled so much pot and cigarette smoke and so many homeless people in my life.  Minus the homeless people in Washington, D.C.  Hmm…another post.


Anyway, whilst in Denver I happened upon a gelato store [snotty travelling folk may commence commenting about how great real Italian gelato is…just scroll down and forget the rest of this post.].  In the gelato store were a strange 16-ish year old kid named Dan and about 20 flavor choices.  Such variety!  Surely the experience would be great!

Unable to decide, I requested several samples–cinnamon bun, cherry something, banana daiquiri [flavored], mint brownie, and tuxedo.  They were all good.  I still couldn’t decide.  However, triumphing over my decision-making paralysis (after 10 minutes)…I chose a combination of banana and tuxedo (which is a combination of 3 flavors).  What I mean is…I chose everything except mint and cherry.

The ice cream…er…gelato was terrific.  Something wasn’t quite right, though.  I was mildly disappointed that I didn’t have some of the other flavors I had chose against, which made my overall ice cream experience a little less pleasing.

An abundance of choices, which is usually touted as a positive in the moment, had actually become a negative in the long run.  The negative was slight as I still enjoyed my gelato, but existent nevertheless.

The Slavery of the Freedom of Choice

As society has “progressed,” it has asserted that freedom is exemplified by more choice(s).  I’m not sure if I can think of an aspect of life that this doesn’t touch as I begin to make a list: ice cream, clothing, water, vacation, lifestyle, religion, pens, pins, pans, pants, plants, plates, etc.  An increase in choices causes an increase in expectation, which is reasonable enough.  If I have a multitude of choices, I should be able to get what is best for me and walk away much more satisfied than if I had only a couple of options.

The two negatives that come from this increase, then, are strange:

  1. A delay or complete paralysis in making a choice, and
  2. A decrease in satisfaction knowing that other options existed that I left behind.

The two seem to augment one another as choices and variety grow larger, while what businesses and marketing teams expect is my increased satisfaction.  In the short run, I’m impressed by DSW’s thousands of shoe selections. Many times, however, I leave the store having been unable to find a shoe that would satisfy me more than all the other options.  And if I leave the store with a purchase, I quickly find some buyer’s remorse in my head as a result of leaving all the other cool shoes behind.

The Bigger Picture

Shoes and ice cream may not be too big of a deal, but do these ideas creep into other aspects of our lives?  After all, society has multiplied or even created choices in some fairly significant areas.  Religion is a prime example.  Zoom all the way out and you find a broad spectrum that includes atheism, Buddhism, Christianity, devil worship, etc.  Zoom into Christianity, though, and you find dozens of denominations, and in every denomination you find dozens of variations, and in every variation you find hundreds of unique congregations to choose between.  Some people, therefore, never choose.  Some people are always choosing and are disappointed every time.

Even in places where nature doesn’t pose a choice, we increase choice.  We have created choice in gender.  Do the same negatives appear here?  I think so.


That sub-heading is false advertising.

We have to be very cautious approaching the idea of fixing these problems.  At first, some will say the answer is to restrict or even eliminate choice.  With no choice, we eliminate negatives, and everyone is happy at a specified standard.  As a result, some have suggested things like the redistribution of wealth through taxation, communism, theocratic domination, and only vanilla gelato.  None of those work very well.  The gelato thing is a joke, but the other stuff doesn’t work very well.

Instead of restricting choices, then, do we need to have very low expectations so that whatever choice we come to is more satisfying?  Where then are hope and motivation?  Difficult, also, to justify.

And so, I submit to the reader/commenter:  What is the solution?  Do we limit choices, lower expectations, learn to be content in all things, roll dice, or what?

You’re up, slugger.

Click to Comment


7 thoughts on “The Slave-ish Freedom of Choice

  1. My answer is “content in all things.” I can’t be worried about what might have been or I’d never move forward. The self doubt over not choosing the mint brownie would eventually become crippling, so I will get it next time. If there’s never a next time, then that’s how it is.
    I do believe that certain people hide behind myriad choices. They want to make an “informed” decision, but they never really make one. This may explain the bouncing around in religions. It seems more like covering your bases rather than making a choice. Or if you never make a choice, then no one can ever call you out on the choice you made.

    Just a thought or two.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Mr. O’Polo. Do you think there is any room for some choice remorse/hesitation in the name of not simply “living in the moment?” Mint Brownie (and there were brownie chunks in the final cone) is the easy one. What about life roles? I’m thinking that these problems play into the break-down of the family structure where men can’t/won’t decide who to be or how to be it based on an ever-broadening field of choices–some of the more rational being condemned by society.

  2. Sure there’s room for choice remorse, but not living in the “what might have been.” As for hesitation, prudence is admirable, but not at the expense of never making a choice. The person who “can’t/won’t” decide creates huge problems for themselves and those associated with that person. We can’t be afraid to make decisions or there’s no living involved.
    As for condemnation, society tends to be somewhat fickle in many regards. So the choice arises to go against mainstream? or take a “more rational” route? It depends on where priorities lie. Is acceptance more important than rationality? How long will acceptance last? Society can’t seem to make up its mind what it likes and what is acceptable. This view is, however, from a guy that has little patience for most of the human race, so we might have to “grain of salt” a bunch of this.

  3. Nooooowww batting. . . .

    I don’t think choice is necessarily the problem. But I also don’t think an abundance of choice is the solution. (okay, i know that was a vague, play on words, cop out answer).

    To start – there’s a bit of danger in equating choices between flavors of ice cream and say, religious beliefs. I don’t think anyone would argue there is a ‘right’ ice cream flavor. Many would argue there are ‘right’ religious beliefs. And to further muddy the waters, I believe there are varying degrees of better or best. But that disclaimer aside . . .

    When it comes to choices of consumption, and I know that some could categorize morality and religion as a consumable good but I wouldn’t, I think the discussion thus far around ‘buyer’s remorse’ is in the right direction. Remorse over your choice is not a product of the abundance of choices but rather your need to maximize utility RIGHT NOW.

    Think about if there were no choices of ice cream flavors and you only had vanilla but you could adjust the quantity of consumption. In theory, at some point you would reach a zero marginal rate of utility of any additional scoops. But does that mean you would consciously feel less utility if you had that max Q – 1? Do all levels of consumption Q leading up to that Max Q necessarily make you feel *less* fulfilled than if you had more?

    What I’m getting at is, for the discussion of consumption and choice, I would argue that there are ranges / combinations of choices that will make you generally happier than if you were not able to make those choices. How we could ever truly measure the amount of utility we *feel* at different levels of consumption looks good in econ textbooks but is not always practical / realistic at the mirco, individual level. If you are the kind of person that is always looking for THE BEST choice at any given moment, you’re unlikely to ever be satisfied (read:content) with any of your choices.

    • So, maybe not too dangerously, I would still say that even within what most people consider “right” for religion there are a multitude of choices that would also be considered “right,” for instance: Which congregation will I be a part of?

      On the other hand, I completely agree about the difference between Ice Cream and Religion. Good point.

      I’m not really a big fan of utility value theories when applied to human emotions. Any kind of measurement would require a universal constant unit of measurement, which there just isn’t–like you said about looking good on paper vs. actual application.

      One idea jumps out from Mark’s and your responses: principles. Without knowing what “optimal” is for yourself, no decision can be made that proves an improvement upon a current condition (which is why all choices are made).

      If we refuse to determine what our principles are, then we refuse the ability to make rational choices.

  4. Totally agree on the point of principles. I would say more broadly, the “why” we do anything in life will make everything else fall into place. As the Merovingian would say, without the ‘why’, you come and go without power. You go because you have been sent. We need to understand why we make the choices we make and contentment / satisfaction will follow.

Whaddya Think?

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