Well, well, well…The Paradox of Choice:

The title of this column is actually from the titles of two different books: The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, a professor and social culture critic, and Essays on Gay Life: So Little Time, by Mike Hippler, a gay columnist for the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter until the time of his death in 1994.
These are very different books—both worth reading—though their topics are not related. Schwartz discusses the paradox of choosing relative to consumer choices about things like which jeans to buy, but I believe we can apply the same dynamics to the idea expressed in Hippler’s title: If there are so many men, and I have so little time, how do I choose? Or how can I be satisfied with the one I have chosen?
Schwartz tells the story of going to buy jeans on a recent shopping trip. Faced with the many options of low rise, baggy fit, roomy fit, stonewash, distressed, etc., he found himself asking, “What if my usual style of jeans isn’t the best choice? What if there’s something better?” Soon he had spent over two hours trying on several different pairs of jeans and feeling ever less certain about making the “right” choice. Hence, his title, the paradox of choice, and his central premise: the more options we are aware of, the more likely that our choices will be beset by unreal expectations, indecision, self-doubt, regret, and comparison to others.
I see this same dilemma playing out in my date’s mind as we sit across from each other at dinner. He’s scanning the room even as we talk, sizing up the options around him. So many choices—is he regretting the one he made for tonight?
Just as the wide range of consumer choice carries with it a number of unexpected consequences, so does the notion that there are so many men and so little time. Schwartz identifies four drawbacks that accompany expansive options.
1—The creation of expectations that can never be met
If there are so many options, I should expect that I can find the one that is the best fit for me. I just have to keep looking.
2—The potential for regret about one’s choice
Even after making a choice, seeing all the remaining options leaves lots of room for regret about the choice I have made. Perhaps I could have done better.
3—The knowledge of missed opportunities
Knowing that I might have been able to do better detracts from the pleasure I have from the choice I did make.
4—Social comparison
I was fine with mine until I saw yours.
How does one avoid these pitfalls? Schwartz says that we need to learn to be content with “good enough.” The idea of the perfect choice, of exploring all the options and finding the best one, is deluding. There is not a perfect choice. Most of our comparisons exist only in our minds. The fantasy is always better than the reality. The many options available defy exploration. At some point you chose a pair of jeans or a mattress or a computer, take it home, and live with it.
One should not carry too far the analogy of choosing jeans versus a man, of course. Jeans are objects; people are not. And we already objectify each other far too much in our culture. Nonetheless, his ideas are worthy of consideration in looking for a partner or learning to be content with one. If I create unrealistic expectations of what it is I am looking for, either I will never find it, or I will think I am “settling” for something less than what I wanted. And if I’m not careful, my comparisons to others, while inevitable, will diminish my appreciation for what I do have.
Hopefully, my next date will see it the same way.

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