Hobnob’s choice

There is altogether too much choice in this world and it induces stress. Stress is bad. Limited choice is good. Let me show and tell.

The first thing to acknowledge is if you’ve made a choice and aren’t allowed to have it, then that induces far worse stress. But that’s limited freedom, not limited choice. What I am complaining about is being forced to make a choice when I don’t have, want or need to.

I am talking about:

  • Supermarkets that have 15 kinds of extra-virgin olive oil.
    • I just want to choose between olive, sunflower, vegetable and lard, thanks. Oh, fuckkit, I’ll go to Morrisons, ta.
  • Doctors making me choose between a dozen indistinguisable triptanes to treat migraine.
    • You’re the one with the medical degree, pal, you choose.
  • The restaurant that says “oh, you want a vegetarian meal, tell us what you’d like and the chef will make it”.
    • Yeah, but how do I know what veg you’ve got in fresh today?

Consumer choice

There is a difference between variety and product range. Variety is something new once in a while. A wide product range is a whole aisle of shampoo. That is one of the many reasons I like Aldi – they maintain a limited core product base and introduce wierd shit every now and again. (The other three reasons are antipasti for a quid, their chocolate brioche which is dangerous, and their tribute brands which deserve a post of their own).   The supermarket problem’s easy enough to deal with – I only go to Sainsburys for prescriptions, petrol and clothes. (I go to Tesco local instead, so there is no health in me. Oh, and the veg and cheese stalls in the market, so maybe there is a bit.)

The situation with professionals is harder because the government insists that the people want a fully informed choice. There are three words that are the problem, “choice”, “informed” and “fully”. How often do people suffer from nocebo side-effects? How much better to say “if anything changes that you don’t like, let me know”. You see, you pay a professional NOT to tell you stuff: you don’t pay for an hour of their time. You pay them to shut the fuckup about the 9,999 hours they have spent leading up to your appointment.


Let’s admit it: choice in our consumer society (or what used to be our consumer society) is a ritual. The purpose of the menu is to give you something to talk about in the embarrasing time before the wine kicks in. It’s not there to give you choice. If it were, then there’d be more than one vegetarian option for a start.  These days I let the one I’m with do the choosing for me while I sit back and look at the other diners and the wallpaper.  (Wallpaper in restaurants, now there’s a topic).

Choice is about giving us something to do while we wait for the waiter, or making us feel special when we are just another punter, or persuading us that we’ve had customer service.

So let’s hear it for smaller shops which you can nip in to and nip out of, advisors who give advice rather than explaining options, and doctors who prescribe and proscribe but don’t bloody well describe.


8 responses to “Hobnob’s choice

  1. After moving from the UK to Germany, I missed the range of choice in UK shops. Now I have got used to and almost cherish my local Aldi, where the produce is limited but good. Also I can do a weekly shop for a family of five for under €100.

    Moving on from Aldi, I agree that consumers, particularly in the UK and the US, have too much choice. That’s why shopping in both countries becomes a hobby for the population, instead of, say, going for nice healthy bike rides in the fresh air as in Germany, for example.

  2. Too much choice is only a problem if you fall for the lie that it matters a monkeys what choice you make. That’s what they want you to think, and they can make you think that because it used to be true.

    The first time I bought a really big telly I did probably forty hours of research on the internet to make sure I was getting the best value for money. And I did. And then 20 minutes later a different telly came out which was better and cheaper. So it goes.

    The next big telly I bought, I poked about on some forums for a couple of hours to make sure it was OK. And it was. I have no idea whether a better one came out shortly after, because I’d stopped looking.

    The last one I just spent about 20 minutes making sure the model I had in mind wasn’t a total dog. It wasn’t. There’s certainly better ones out there, and possibly even cheaper, but the one I have is so unbelievably good I have no use for the incremental benefits of a “better” one.

    Choice matters when it’s possible to make a bad one. If you’d bought a paraglider 20 years ago, the choice would have boiled down to (a) one that works more or less OK, probably and (b) one that probably works, but if you hit a downdraft, snag a line or turn without due care and attention, you’ll be in a wheelchair if you’re lucky. At that time, exhaustive research and time spent pondering was worthwhile. Nowadays, design and manufacture has advanced to the point where it’s not really possible to buy an inherently dangerous glider, so choice comes down to whether you like the colour, whether your instructor sells this brand or that, or other meaningless details.

    And the thing is – the market is like that now for practically everything any western consumer needs or even wants. The only thing I can think of where recently it’s been possible to buy something actually BAD is mobile phones, and even there my experience is something like five years out of date, which is a geological amount of time in the phone market.

    So the key to overcoming the agony of choice is simply to understand that in almost any situation, choice is irrelevant. If there are no bad choices – if it really doesn’t matter whether you buy a Ford, a Vauxhall or a Honda (and it doesn’t), then you can simply relax, pick whichever one occurs to you, or flip a coin, serene in the knowledge that you’re going to get something that’s about as good as it can be.

  3. Amen! Too much “choice” is crippling and pointless. I adore the idea of fixed menu restaurants – they are the experts so they give you something nice. Give me food, please! I hate buffets for the same reason. Consumer choice overload isn’t freedom, it just gives us the feeling of control and stresses us out.

  4. sonofrojblake

    I heard tell of the ultimate opposite of this – a sushi restaurant in Tokyo. Cost some astronomical amount to get in, seated about a dozen people, served food at 9pm. Which is to say, IF you could get in, they let you in at 8.30, and the chef came out at 9pm. He wordlessly prepared the sushi right there in front of the assembled diners, put it on the table, and f**ked off. And that was it. No menu, no questions, no choice. He’s the expert, he knows best, the idea being that whatever fish was best that day, that’s what gets served. You, the moronic punter, cannot be expected to know what was best at Tsukiji that morning, so you just turn up and tuck in.

    I’d love to go.

  5. Very good point – and pithily, wittily expressed too. Limited options can make life much easier (I know whereof I speak, mine being so limited as to barely exist!). I am really enjoying your blog. Thank you, AB!

  6. “But 13 hours? That’s almost a marriage.”

    Thank you for that SoRB. 🙂

    My pleasure minniebeaniste.

  7. Great article, but i’m afraid i have to disagree. I love choice.

    This is especially true when it comes to medical care because actually doctors often don’t know what my priorities are. It does make it more difficult if i have to think about what i’m signing up to, but in my mind that’s a good thing too.

    There’s far too much passiveness when it comes to health. This is your body! You only get the one and when it’s gone so are you.

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