I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell. His particular genius for collecting data and weaving together fresh insights has produced a wealth of practical wisdom to help us improve the quality of our lives.
But nobody’s perfect.
I recently came across Mr. Gladwell’s 2004 Ted Talk, in which he recounted the career of one Howard Moskowitz, a psychophysicist whose market research for Pepsi Cola, Vlasic Pickles, and Prego Spaghetti Sauce — beginning back in the early 70s — changed the food industry forever. It might seem obvious to us with the wisdom of hindsight but, to make a long story short, Howard Moskowitz discovered that there is no perfect pickle, no ideal type of cola, and no universal favorite recipe for spaghetti sauce.
How big a deal was this? I’ll let Mr. Gladwell explain:
Everyone else in the industry looked at what Howard had done, and they said, “Oh my God! We’ve been thinking all wrong!” And that’s when you started to get seven different kinds of vinegar, and 14 different kinds of mustard, and 71 different kinds of olive oil. And then eventually even Ragù hired Howard, and Howard did the exact same thing for Ragù that he did for Prego. And today, if you go to a really good supermarket, do you know how many Ragùs there are? 36! In six varieties: Cheese, Light, Robusto, Rich & Hearty, Old World Traditional — Extra-Chunky Garden.
All well and good. Now we can all have exactly what we like all the time, without sacrifice, without compromise, without effort.
But then Mr. Gladwell continues, moving on from tomato sauce to mustard:
And instead of charging a dollar fifty for the eight-ounce bottle, the way that French’s and Gulden’s did, they decided to charge four dollars. And they had those ads. With the guy in the Rolls Royce, eating the Grey Poupon. Another pulls up, and says, “Do you have any Grey Poupon?” And the whole thing, after they did that, Grey Poupon takes off! Takes over the mustard business!
And everyone’s take-home lesson from that was that the way to make people happy is to give them something that is more expensive, something to aspire to. It’s to make them turn their back on what they think they like now, and reach out for something higher up the mustard hierarchy…
That is the final, and I think most beautiful lesson, of Howard Moskowitz: that in embracing the diversity of human beings, we will find a surer way to true happiness.
And it is here that Malcolm Gladwell takes the off ramp from the highway of reason and turns onto the backstreets of phantasmagoria.
HAPPINESS OR DELIRIUM?
When Thomas Jefferson penned his famous dictum asserting our inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, was he talking about our choice of mustard? Is a perfectly brewed cup of coffee the ultimate means whereby we make ourselves, in Mr. Gladwell’s words, “deliriously happy”? And as for aspiring to pay more for a product because an accented actor in a Rolls Royce implants in our minds a subliminal connection between a condiment and sophistication — is this a symptom of a truly happy, psychologically healthy society?
I could pontificate on these questions ad nauseum. But, fortunately, I have someone else who can do it for me.
As it happened, I came upon psycho-economist Sheena Iyengar’s own Ted Talk from 2010 almost immediately after I found Malcolm Gladwell’s. Although I doubt it was intended as a rebuttal, that’s exactly what it turned out to be.
Dr. Iyengar describes her surprise upon discovering that recent immigrants from former communist countries did not see a choice between seven kinds of soda as a choice at all; rather, they saw one single choice: soda.
So who is better off? The person who has many choices, or the person who doesn’t see a need to choose?
Dr. Iyengar explains it this way:
When someone can’t see how one choice is unlike another, or when there are too many choices to compare and contrast, the process of choosing can be confusing and frustrating. Instead of making better choices, we become overwhelmed by choice, sometimes even afraid of it. Choice no longer offers opportunities, but imposes constraints. It’s not a marker of liberation, but of suffocation by meaningless minutiae. In other words, choice can develop into the very opposite of everything it represents…
She goes on to suggest that we reconsider three basic assumptions about choice:
- It is always good to make your own choices.
- More options lead to better choices.
- You must never say no to choice.
If we are choosing between irrelevancies, if we are overwhelmed with options, or if we don’t have enough information to choose wisely, does it make any sense at all to conclude that we’re better off just because we have the right and the opportunity to choose?
Dr. Iyengar adds:
A number of my studies have shown that when you give people 10 or more options when they’re making a choice, they make poorer decisions, whether it be health care, investment, or other critical areas. Yet still, many of us believe that we should make all our own choices and seek out even more of them.
Which brings us back to Malcolm Gladwell, and to Thomas Jefferson.
OVERWHELMED BY OPPORTUNITY
Have you ever stood irresolutely in the supermarket aisle trying to determine whether this brand was better than that brand, whether the big box was worth the savings-per-ounce over the small box, whether it was worth the risk to choose an unknown product that you might love or might hate over sticking with a brand that you know that you like?
Have you ever felt that your life would be much simpler if the market gave you fewer choices? And have you actually tried all 36 brands of spaghetti sauce to make sure that the one you finally settle on is the one you like best?
Even if you have, can you honestly say that now you’re happier?
Thoughtful reflection suggests just the opposite. When we have more choices, we also have higher expectations of getting exactly what we want, a lower tolerance for imperfection, and a more persistent feeling that we’ve missed out on a better choice.
For my part, I can honestly say that one of the most memorable meals I ever had was at a medieval banquet. There was no menu, everyone was served the same courses, and they were all delicious.
Dr. Iyengar went on to explain what happened when women were given a choice between two shades of pink nail polish. Half of them thought they were being tricked — that both shades were actually the same — and the other half chose one way when the bottles had labels and the opposite way when they did not. The attractiveness of the respective hues could not compete with the superior branding of “Ballet Slipper” pink over “Adorable” pink.
So are we all condemned to remain victims of too many meaningless choices, or is there something we can do about it?
Let’s start by translating Dr. Iyengar’s challenged assumptions into action. By doing so, we can arm ourselves with a list of criteria to check off whenever a legion of choices comes storming over the horizon.
- Does it really matter? If I have to look too closely to tell the difference between two shades of nail polish, five styles of shoes, or 27 kinds of toothbrushes, chances are that I won’t notice the difference one way or the other after I’ve made my choice. So why am I agonizing over how to choose?
- Am I missing anything? Madison Avenue tries to seduce us with adjectives like fresh, new, improved, better, premium, unique, and exclusive. But as my father often said: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If I haven’t been missing anything up until now, why should I go searching for something else?
- Am I buying into a false comparison? Professor Dan Gilbert points out that the same people who would pay $1600 for a Hawaiian vacation discounted from $2000 would pass on the same vacation for $1500 if they had just missed a special that offered it for $1000. In other words, “a good deal that was once a great deal is not nearly so attractive as an awful deal that was once a horrible deal.” Look at the choice itself, not the choices all around it.
- What if I don’t choose? Will there be any consequences, good or bad? Is there someone more qualified, more objective, or more informed to make the choice? And if no choice gets made at all, will anyone notice?
- Am I overwhelmed with options? When too many choices start to blur together, an overloaded mind almost guarantees choosing poorly. Start with a process of elimination by weeding out the worst alternatives first. If you can get down to a manageable number, then you can think about deciding. If not, sleep on it.
- Am I being impatient? Again, Professor Gilbert points to research that most people will choose $50 now over $60 a month from now, but choose $60 in 13 months over $50 in 12 months. If we can wait later, we should be able to wait now. But immediate gratification distorts our reasoning.
- Am I thinking rationally? Emotions play a disproportionate role in many of our decisions. When I feel my hormones, my endorphins, or my impulse for immediate gratification kicking in, it’s time for a time out. If all else fails, call a friend whom you’ve prepped to act as your rational anchor. Alternatively, carry a pair of handcuffs at all times so you can lock yourself to the nearest parking meter.
- Do I have enough information to choose wisely? When it comes to big decisions, like college, marriage, and presidential elections, do I know what I’m committing myself to? This is often a corollary of Number 7, since a flood of emotions easily blinds us to our own ignorance as well as our own impetuosity. Choosing out of ignorance is a synonym for stupidity.
A healthy dose of reality always makes for the best possible choice — even if that means making fewer choices from fewer options. In the end, we will likely discover that by choosing less we will end up with more time, more peace of mind and, yes, more happiness.
One more thing: be careful not to let yourself be swayed by those who insist, like Starbucks, that “Happiness is in your choices.”
That’s their choice. As for me — I take my coffee black.
Rabbi Yonason Goldson, a talmudic scholar and radio personality, is a former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist who lives with his wife in St. Louis, Missouri. His new book is Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages, a marriage of King Solomon’s proverbs with the mysterious beauty of the Mona Lisa, is filled with discovery, insight, and inspiration.