Thursday, June 23, 2011

Freedom and the paradox of choice


Over at Startling the Day, my friend Elizabeth Hillgrove talks about a label psychologists and sociologists are starting to apply to certain twenty-somethings: emerging adults. These are the typical qualities of the emerging adult:

  • They are searching for their identity and exploring different options.
  • Their lives are unstable.
  • They are self-focused, meaning they are not yet beholden to anyone.
  • They feel “in-between” adolescence and adulthood.
  • It’s a time of remarkable optimism.

My first reaction to this list was to quip: “After thirty, they’re called slackers.” And, in the way of all jokes, this is true. I ran into a similar label, pre-adulthood, in Kay S. Hymowitz’s controversial WSJ essay, “Where Have The Good Men Gone?”, which I discussed back in February (“Fish need bicycles”). But while emerging adulthood as given by psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett is given a positive spin, Hymowitz’s pre-adulthood is almost synonymous with “men who won’t grow up”.

The odd thing is, this post comes up right after I’d had a quick discussion on Facebook with the Crescat and Michael Liccione over Richard James Verone, a 59-year-old man who deliberately “robbed” a bank for $1 very politely in order to go to jail and get free medical care. I’d also watched an hour-long talk psychologist Barry Schwartz gave at Google on The Paradox of Choice. And, to top it all off, the day before I’d just watched The Shawshank Redemption, one of the best movies ever based on a Stephen King story.


In one of the minor story arcs, the prison librarian, Brooks (James Whitmore), is freed on parole after having spent most of his life in Shawshank. Instead of reacting with joy, though, he breaks down in tears. Red (Morgan Freeman), discussing it with other prisoners, tells them that, “In here, Brooks is important, someone to be reckoned with. Out there, he’s nobody … just an old crook.” Later, Brooks, unable to handle the unstructured yet meaningless life of a parolee, commits suicide.

Prof. Schwartz explains that, when the number of options one has increases, several problems kick in. First, it becomes easier to imagine “what I should have chosen”; as a result, whatever I choose, I’m going to regret having chosen. Second, we tend to feel time pressure when given a choice of things we want to do more than we do from things we have to do. Third, more choices creates higher expectations, leading to dissatisfaction with a choice that, in a context with fewer choices, would have been good enough. Fourth, the higher expectation in a situation with more options means that, if the choice is unsatisfactory, it’s my fault because I didn’t make the right choice.

These problems create three overall effects of greater choice. First, unless you know rather well what you want or the choices are alignable to some degree, then you’re likely to experience paralysis (an effect with which I’m very familiar). Second, you’re likely to make worse decisions than you would with more limited options. Third, whatever you choose, you’re less likely to be satisfied with it unless you have a reasonable idea of what would be good enough.

We live with the unconscious assumption of what Prof. Schwartz calls “The Official Syllogism”: The more freedom you have, the better off you are; more choices = more freedom; therefore, more choices = better off. Without disputing the Official Syllogism, though, it remains true that more choices impose a heavier burden on the individual.

By contrast, Verone was able to choose jail over going without health care, voluntarily giving up choices and taking the bad things about prison life in order to get what he needed. Modern marketing equates need with desire, and constantly tells us we deserve the best we can get. Whatever else we can say about the morality of Verone’s choice — even a polite, weaponless, half-hearted robbery attempt is still a robbery attempt — we can say his sense of what he needed and what he could accept to get it was clearer and more realistic than most. Like Brooks, a form of slavery in which he could survive was preferable to a freedom in which he couldn’t.

Coming back to Elizabeth’s post: The rise of the emerging adult/pre-adult/slacker, I believe, is another equivocal “gift” of the Sexual Revolution. I’ve long suspected that marriage and parenthood, for many if not most people, are essential rites of passage that complete the maturation process. Not all that long ago, it was expected that you would marry and begin raising children very soon after leaving school. And it turns out that the maturation process — assuming nothing else has stunted it — ends around the age of 25.

Today, young people no longer feel the pressure to marry and procreate right out of high school … or even right out of college. They can play the field, or they can cohabit, or they can just leave dating off to the side as they pursue their own interest. Since the default is no longer marriage, and there’s no sense of having to rush to choose one’s life mate, the default seems to have shifted to not choosing at all.

There is a sense, then, in which having a wider range of options open doesn’t lead to greater well-being. And here we’re not just considering the so-called “freedom of choice”; at any time in our lives, we can be chained by indecision into doing nothing and accepting the consequences as they come, or allow ourselves to be pressured into an option we didn’t close off beforehand.

“Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” Taking Bl. John Paul’s words as our model, it follows that by developing a strong moral code, we take options off the table, actually increasing our freedom to choose by diminishing the paralysis of having too many choices.

From here, there are at least half a dozen directions we can go by reflecting on freedom and choices. For now, it’s enough to ponder the dilemma, and ask ourselves a question that strikes right to the heart of the American experiment:

Is it possible to be too free?