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Choice Exhaustion

I am a new homeowner. This makes me happy. It also means that I’m starting to feel seriously burnt out on Big Decisions, long before the list of those decisions comes near to a close. (I’ve been avoiding the paint-color discussion for weeks now.)

It seems funny to me that picking the house itself, in retrospect, was (almost) easier than picking the bank, the amount of improvements, the stove, the dishwasher. OK, it wasn’t easier, but compared to the magnitude of the choice it felt that way.

Barry Schwartz, who just published a book called The Paradox of Choice, would probably say that’s not so surprising. That choice can be paralyzing, even painful, is the simplified thesis of Schwartz’s book. This is especially true when there are lots of choices. When looking at the house we bought, the question was only do we want this house or not? We had no other active options on the table at the time. This was in direct contrast to, oh, say, 50 dishwashers gleaming in a row.

Trying to be an environmentally and socially responsible purchaser has always swung both ways for me on this front—sometimes it holds me there in that painful decision-making limbo longer, as when the cheap, appealing, and otherwise easy choice in front of me turns out to have been manufactured using a combination of rare rainforest woods chopped down by slave child labor and varnished with musk from an endangered species. Back to the drawing board. Decision not yet made.

Or, of course, the worse and much more common situation where each option has its pluses and minuses (organic vs. locally grown? union made vs. recycled?). I do not claim to have perfected any surefire way of getting through these situations without resorting to the well-known, burned-out-on-responsibility shopping reaction: Well, that one’s pretty/yummy/cheap. This is the price of not getting paralyzed by choice. Economists call it “satisficing” rather than the uber-rational “maximizing of utility” that we’re taught in intro economics that we all do.

But in other cases, having an extra criterion or two actually makes the choices easier. I found, for example, that wanting to avoid war-profiteering GE was actually a great boon in trying to choose appliances. If you have someone like my father-in-law with you who knows which brands GE makes, you quickly find out that it makes most, but not all, of them. This continentally narrowed my choices to a relatively acceptable number from which to choose without totally freaking out.

Energy Smart labels are also a help. Rather than trying to memorize someone’s accounting of whether or not a particular dishwasher uses a lot of energy or deduce its efficiency from some complex set of other information about load times and construction and water pressure (or whatever would go into it), there’s a handy little yellow tag. In the name of being virtuous, we were able to sidestep all awkward discussions about which shape of drawer is desirable and how well stainless steel will go in our as-yet-unpainted or furnished kitchen.

Almost all—there was still that one European dishwasher with the off-the-charts energy efficiency, totally out of league of any of the other choices. Happily for our decision-making angst, it wasn’t merely a little more expensive, but actually twice as expensive as everything else and, according to Consumer Reports, doesn’t actually do very well at that washing-of-dishes thing. Hmmmm. No. Not the most painful decision roadblock you could imagine.

Still, this wanting the best number possible makes me a quintessential American, according to Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and numerous other bits of highly lucid environmental writing. In a recent column for Orion (called “My Mileage Is Better Than Your Mileage”), he notes that the best way to change behavior for us competitive individualistic Americans is to change what we measure. His example is hybrid cars: His driving habits have totally changed since getting his hybrid Honda Civic, trying to drive up that mpg number on the mileage gauge.

I almost laughed out loud when I read that. Since getting a hybrid myself, I’ve gone from a lackadaisical driver to one obsessed with my driving technique, for exactly the same reason. A few weeks ago I was crowing that I made it to Boston and back with a total mpg over 52—driving like a trucker all the way (fast downhill, slow uphill). I must have driven the people behind me absolutely batty. Of course at truly gasoline-efficient speeds, very few people were behind me for very long.

Amusingly, an autophile I know said a writer for one of those magazines like Car and Driver, where people tend to talk more about 0-60 times than eco nonsense, had the same reaction.

McKibben’s solution is to put a similar mileage gauge in every car, hybrid or not. He figures people’s driving habits would change enough to increase fuel efficiency by 10 percent without any structural change to the cars themselves, and even better, they would never be able to purchase a new car that got worse mileage than their last one.

It sounds wonderful. Next I want a gauge that works like a Geiger counter to go off when pointed at the best option out of whatever I’m trying to decide among, programmed with a subtle and nuanced prioritization of environmental soundness, price, and doing-what-it-oughta. For abstract decisions it should work on a written list.

Too bad even that wouldn’t help me pick the paint colors.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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