When it comes to medical treatment, patients see choice as both a blessing and a burden.… And what makes it overwhelming is not only that the decision is ours, but that the number of sources of information from which we are to make the decisions has exploded. It’s not just a matter of listening to your doctor lay out the options and making a choice. We now have encyclopedic lay-people’s guides to health, “better health” magazines, and, most dramatic of all, the Internet. So now the prospect of a medical decision has become everyone’s worst nightmare of a term paper assignment, with stakes infinitely higher than a grade in a course.
—Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice
Schwartz describes how the burden of choice and oversight is being offloaded from experts such as doctors or accountants on to average people who have no training to help them make important decisions. Governments used to have trained and experienced staff whose sole purpose was to oversee monopolized utilities and make sure the public was being well served. When utilities are deregulated, however, the consumer is expected to look out for their own interests, despite having little time, expertise, or power to investigate every company vying for their account. (Can you say Enron?)
Choice sounds good in theory, but in practice there is far too much complexity in our lives for us to truly choose. What we end up doing is coping with choice, which is not the same thing. Obviously there has to be a balance between paternalism and a surfeit of choice. The fact that our current level of choice stresses us out (according to studies) should be a clue that we’ve already gone too far in that direction.