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
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
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
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.