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The paradox of food choice

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Can less be more, more or less?

"Do you ever think there’s just too much?"

A friend left this plaintive little message on my voicemail the other day. It struck me as a haiku-ish echo of Andreas Gurksy’s huge and hugely captivating "99 cent". This digitally enhanced colour print (the original is some six by nine feet) shows, in almost psychotic detail, row after endless row of goods for sale in an American supermarket. Between the claustrophobic shelves, tiny shoppers’ heads pop up as if gasping for air.

The image, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, has become emblematic of the "too much" syndrome in the contemporary capitalist environment. It has headlined an essay in Harper’s Magazine on the numbing of the American mind, popped up on a book about shopping and, in its latest incarnation, graced the cover of Barry Schwartz’s new book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less .

Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College in Philadelphia, has ruffled a lot feathers and popular interest with his observations. He explains why more choices really offer less satisfaction. Finally, some substance where the now-abandoned simplicity movement dropped off. (Remember that one? People bought books to tell them to throw out junk they didn’t need or stop dragging home useless stuff, like the book they’d just bought, in the first place.)

No one in her or his right mind would advocate that choice is bad. Especially in the U.S., where freedom of choice is typically a sanctified right, current presidency excepted. What Schwartz does is explain how someone like my pal got to the point of leaving such a message. And how he would likely be happier with fewer options. (The reasons, which I’m probably oversimplifying so you feel happier, are that it’s easier to feel satisfied you’ve made informed or wise choices with fewer options, plus you don’t feel like you’ve missed out on something when you finally do choose.)

When you start to poke around the idea of "choice", you find a lot of pretty interesting ideas to choose from. How much choice do we need to be happy? What determines what we get to choose from and why? And, once we take a closer look, how much of what we find on those endlessly looming shelves constitutes real choice?

Schwartz wanders deeper into the aisles Gursky portrays, starting his book with a trip to the supermarket. And what does he find? Eighty-five kinds of crackers; 285 different cookies; 95 variations of snacks like chips and pretzels; 230 soup offerings; 175 different salad dressings. You get the point.

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