How Choice Failed Us

Fewer Americans cast ballots in 2016 than have in a generation. Sheena Iyengar argues that's due in part to how we make difficult choices.

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Democracy is in chaos.

That's the conclusion of a study by Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, researchers from Harvard and the University of Melbourne, written up by the New York Times and circulated widely on social media. Across the board, the researchers found declining support for liberal democracy. In just the past twenty years the share of Americans who said that military rule would be a good or very good thing has risen from about 6 percent to 17 percent. The effect is particularly strong among the young. Only about a third of American respondents born in the 1980s said it was “essential” to live in a democracy, while nearly three quarters of those born in the 1930s said the same.

While there's reason to believe the results should be less alarming than they first appear, it seems clear that democracy is no longer the unassailable ideal it once was.

America has always been a nation of choosers. It’s a truth enshrined in the persistent dream of our country as a land of opportunity, and it’s one inscribed in the act of voting itself, the very engine of our democracy.

As I have listened to the reactions of many of my fellow Americans to the results of November 8, I’ve heard many of them wondering: did choice fail us in this election?

As someone who has been studying choice and its consequences for my whole career, it’s a question I have been pondering myself.

Decades of research on how we choose — as well as the pros and cons of choice — have revealed that when it comes to choice, sometimes we get more than we bargained for — particularly when what we bargain for isn’t what we want.

With hindsight, we can trace some of the earliest clues of our trouble with choice in this campaign season to the Republican primaries. When it comes to choosing our phones, shoes, and desserts, we love having more and more choices. But voters and pundits alike were befuddled when confronted by the field of 17 Republican candidates — often as many as 10 on stage all at once.

Looking from face to face, who could expect anyone but the experts to keep track of which candidate stood for what? Most of us, when confronted by so many options, have to channel all of our mental energy into just keeping those options straight, lest we forget one. And as a result, we become less concerned with the actual content of those options.

Social science has shown us that there are diminishing returns to increasing options up to the point where more choices can impede good decision-making. My own research with Emir Kamenica, of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, showed that when confronted with eleven gambles with different odds, rather than with just three, people go for the sure bet — even if it promises less of a payoff. If we’re too distracted, tired, or lazy to do the math, the fact is most of us choose what we understand at a glance — and the loudest guy onstage touting the simplest message is hard to miss, harder to forget — and easy to choose.

But, even if we’re willing to accept that the outrageous number of Republican candidates gave Donald Trump’s visibility an even sharper edge, we’re still left with the puzzle of how Trump beat Hillary Clinton. Here we had just two options — or, including Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, four — meaning we can’t point to any trouble posed by an overcrowded stage.

But here again we see the lessons of choice at work.

A number of studies by social scientists, including Simona Botti, Ann McGill, and myself, have shown that we have a much harder time choosing amongst options that we don’t like than options we do. The reason for this, simply put, is that when we’re choosing amongst desirable options, our job is fun: we get to identify the one that’s the best. We add up the pros and cons of each option and pick the one with the highest score.

But when we’re choosing amongst undesirable options, the entire process turns laborious. When faced with adding up all the cons and deciding which option we think is less bad, we’re demotivated. Instead of comparing our choices, we direct our energy instead to resentment and frustration. We complain endlessly about the choices themselves.

And this complaining feels great when it’s part of a chorus of complaints. Recall how much solidarity there was between Americans and the media about how awful our choices were and how little attention was given to the differences — albeit cons — between those options. Now, we’re left scratching our heads and asking to be reminded: what do we know about the first 100 days of the winner, again?

It’s human nature to hate choosing amongst the undesirable. But research shows that we’re even more likely to dislike making such choices when the options are so clearly different from one another. And it’s hard to imagine candidates more different than Clinton and Trump.

So what might we expect from voters who feel they’re choosing between two bad options? They can either do the difficult and distasteful work of determining which is worse — or they can simply avoid making the choice altogether.

While the latter choice seems incomprehensible to many, it’s what many voters did — in this election and in countless elections past. It’s possible to understand this choice as an attempt to save face: after all, if we avoid making the choice, we are absolved of responsibility. If we don’t exercise our right to choose, then we can tell ourselves we are merely victims of destiny. That feels a lot better than saying, “yes, I chose one of those awful things.”

At the root of the non-chooser’s dilemma is the fact that choice is deeply tied to our identity, and none of us want to be identified with something we dislike. Rather than take up the mantle of “the one who prefers the rock to the hard place,” we refuse to define ourselves by the choices we don’t want to make. We opt to wear “I choose not to choose” as a badge of honor.

After the election, which saw the lowest voter turnout in 20 years, this was what I heard, to my surprise, from so many people: they were proud to have abstained from voting. These were the Americans who spent their energy, during the days leading up to the choice, wishing the choice away instead of doing the work of making a difficult decision.

Ultimately, I’m not trying to say what was the right or the wrong choice. The way choice failed us here was first too much and then too little, causing us to lose track of how, or perhaps even why, we choose.

As modern citizens of democracies, we are free to choose and free not to choose. But either choice leaves us equally complicit in the final outcome, and failing to reckon with that outcome looks less like an exercise of freedom than a rejection of freedom itself.

A version of this article originally appeared on Sheena Iyengar’s personal blog under the title “The Failure or Choice.”

About the researcher

Sheena Iyengar

Sheena S. Iyengar is the inaugural S.T. Lee Professor of Business in the Management Division at Columbia Business School, and...

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