Too Many Choices Can Boggle the Mind

(Published in The Beach Reporter 9/8/1989).

George Moore, a popular European playwright in the early 1900s, must have foreseen the future when he wrote the words, “The difficulty in life is the choice.” I don’t know how it happened, but suddenly it seems that I am faced with a multitude of choices for even my smallest decisions.

A simple trip to the grocery store can become a stressful experience if you don’t have your wits about you. Let’s say you want a six-pack of cola. You need to decide the following things first: Do you want sugar-free/no caffeine, regular/no caffeine or do you live on the edge and go for the regular stuff with both sugar and caffeine? Classic or new? Cherry or plain?

I find myself standing there in a trance in the grocery aisle, pondering all these variables as though I am making a life-altering decision. Other food items offer the same mind-boggling choices. Green beans with the salt in or out? Herbal tea, regular, decaf, or sweetened? Sugar-free chocolate or the good stuff? Tuna in water or oil?

One choice that’s easy for me to make is the choice between natural and what I can only logically think of as unnatural. I always buy natural. I’m no dummy.

The produce section isn’t much better. There you have a choice between organically grown, or un-organically grown, with lots of pesticides. Of course the organically grown is 30% more expensive. It costs a lot of money to leave those pesticides off.

You can never serve plain old corn or peas to your family. Botanists have hybridized at least 480 different strains of zucchini alone, so now you’re in big trouble. The new trend in produce is “exotic vegetables,” an odd assortment of chunky, weird-colored roots that I wouldn’t know whether to steam or use as a doorstop. I wander up and down the aisles trying to decide if I should just stick to the basics or spring some kohlrabi or chayote on my unsuspecting family.

On to the meat section. Selecting a chicken used to be an easy choice. No more! You have choices to make! Do you want a bird that grew up in the cramped, hellish confines of a chicken-breeding farm, or do you want a happy “free-range” bird? All natural, or – again –  opposed to what?

This trend toward specialization of products is also apparent in the dry goods section of the market. I am convinced that no matter what type of hair you have, there is a special shampoo just for you. Oily scalp and brittle ends? No problem. Dry scalp, oily middle, and split ends? You’re in luck. The only problem is figuring out what kind of hair you have, while the ice cream in your cart (sugar-free, low butterfat) is melting onto your foot.

Congratulations. You made it to the checkout lane feeling confident and upbeat, having made all the right decisions. Now – paper bags or plastic? Cash, check, or credit card?

The supermarkets aren’t the only businesses offering an overwhelming assortment of choices. I pulled into a gas station the other day and it took me thirty minutes to figure out which gas pump I was supposed to use: Unleaded/cash only, unleaded/credit card/supreme? Unleaded supreme/ travelers checks/ unscented unleaded/bank card only? The whole experience was so unnerving.

I view this as being tied in with the all-American ethic of freedom of choice, offering something for every individual taste. And if something is as American as apple pie (McIntosh, Red Delicious, or Jonathan?) who am I to challenge it?

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