Choices For The American Consumer, The Proliferation Of Things To Choose From Has Resulted In Option Overload And Tremendous Stress

March 24, 1991|By William Ecenbarger

Automobile dealer: Larger engine? Turbocharged engine? Automatic or five-speed? Power steering? Anti-lock brakes? Automatic level control? Outside mirrors? Rear window defroster? Rear window wiper-washer? Heated windshield? Power seats? Adjustable steering wheel? Air conditioning? Cruise control? Theft deterrent? Trip computer? Power windows? Courtesy lights? Sunroof? Central locking system? Body trim? Bumper protection? Fancy wheel covers? After market rustproofing? Service contract? . . .

Cereal shelves: All-Bran. Rice Bran. Raisin Bran. Cracklin' Oat Bran. Common Sense Oat Bran. Fruitful Bran. Bran Flakes. Raisin Nut Bran. Quaker Oat Bran. Shredded Wheat With Oat Bran. 100% Bran. Crunchy Corn Bran. Crunchy Rice Bran. Multi-Bran Chex. Oat Bran Option . . .

Magazine rack: Modern Bride, Modern Drummer, Modern Electronics, Modern Maturity, Modern Office Technology, Modern Romances, Modern Secretary, Modern Tire Dealer, Modern Woodmen . . .

Voting booth: Governor. Lieutenant governor. U.S. senator. U.S. representative. State senator. State representative. County commissioner. Recorder of deeds. Coroner. Clerk of courts. Prothonotary. Register of wills. Sheriff. Borough Council. Shall the Constitution be amended to permit . . .

Right off, you must make a choice. Read this or not? There are plenty of other good articles in today's paper; there are plenty of other newspapers; also at your newsstand there are hundreds of magazines, and they have some good articles, too. Then there are books, television programs, videos . . .

There are so many choices that it can get very frustrating -- and that's what this article is all about.

"We are racing toward 'overchoice' -- the point at which the advantages of diversity and individualization are canceled by the complexity of the . . . decision-making process."

Alvin Toffler "Future Shock," 1970 Life has become a giant smorgasbord of opportunity, a table bulging with more food than anyone could ever eat. True enough, freedom exists only in the presence of choices, but it does not follow that the presence of choices -- especially too many choices -- offers freedom.

Buying an automobile today can be an intimidating experience. There are as many as 25,000 items on the grocery shelves. More than 11,000 different magazines were published in 1990. Opening a checking account can degenerate into a nightmare of indecision. Nowadays, you need a magnifying glass to read the television listings. Charities and do-good groups have unleashed epistolary hailstorm on our mailboxes. Have a Coke -- regular, diet, regular caffeine-free, diet caffeine-free, classic? The voting booth looks like the cockpit of a Boeing 747.

The sheer weight of decisions can give one a headache. Reach for an aspirin? Ibuprofen? Regular? Extra-strength? Capsules? Tablets? Caplets? We can become as indecisive as a mosquito in a nudist camp. It's enough to drive you to a shrink. But what kind? Psychologist? Psychiatrist? Psychoanalyst?

Nobody chooses to come into this world, but once we get here, life is a series of choices. The newborn chooses the right or left breast, and the doomed chooses burial or cremation. Choices are the building blocks of our lives, and the big ones -- spouse, career, family -- help us define who we are, what we want and where we are going.

But burgeoning technology and waning tradition have created option overload -- a phenomenon that many psychologists and sociologists believe plays a large role in the general level of stress in American society.

"You can go into a major shopping mall and become totally

emotionally exhausted in one hour and you might have been in only one store buying only one item. The reason is there is such a plethora of items to pick from and so much stimuli in front of you that people have a hard time focusing. . . . People are emotionally stressed and don't know it from the tremendous proliferation of consumer items and the terrific assessments they have to make when they buy a product or service. It's a tremendous emotional burden . . . well beyond the level [of stress] that our parents knew. . . . "

--Jeremy Rifkin, "Time Wars," 1987 The Consumer Federation of America reported last September that most Americans are incompetent in the marketplace; it said most of us don't know that auto insurance rates vary widely, that life insurance becomes less important with age, and that there are many differences among bank accounts. And, of course, that old scapegoat, the public school system, was blamed for failing to teach consumer skills.

But the chief shortcoming of the average American consumer is not education but time. Being a responsible consumer today is a full-time job. When you go to buy a computer and are asked, "Do you want a mono monitor that supports Herc graphics?" you'll need at least the rest of the day to answer.

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