The Paralysis of Choice


Ever since Kahneman and Tversky’s groundbreaking work we have accepted the fact that humans just aren’t very good at choices and keeping the best interest of everyone in mind. We believe our thinking and decision-making processes are clear and logical when in fact we are inconsistent in many ways. I presume most readers of this blog are familiar with this general pattern and I will not elaborate on it except to say that we make many types of mistakes: we exaggerate what we know; we overvalue some objects for illogical psychological reasons; quality information sometimes does not matter; we shift choices for ideological reasons; we unconsciously seek out confirming information; on the average, humans are more unreflective, impulsive, and subject to illogical influences than we are “rational.” A recent article in The Nation captures these issues.

But those of us interested in deliberation, political communication, group decision-making, and group processes cannot easily abandon the issue of choice or making decisions. We cannot simply throw up our hands and say “people are irrational.” We must continue to explore these matters and find ways to improve.

For starters, we should confront our historical ideology about the value of choice. As a liberal democracy and market economy we naturally believe that choice is better, and the more choices you have the freer the market and the richer the environment. But some who have written about this issue demonstrate how we are constantly anxious and unsure of ourselves because of so many choices. We are constantly in the state of insecurity and questioning whether or not we have done the right thing whether it is a choice of a school, a food item in the market, a financial plan, or any number of other choices.

Still, one of the most interesting and creative ways to think about choice is the role it plays in a democratic society. In other words, choice can be related to political ideology such as those choices explained in Gladwell’s The Art of Choosing or Ben-Porath in Tough Choices. One political argument for the role of government is that it levels the playing field; when the distribution of money and resources becomes unequal government steps in and constrains choice markets. Clearly we do not make choices in a perfectly rational market – some members of that market have fewer choices than others and of less quality – so a middle force such as a government steps in and levels the playing field choices.

Again, part of this intervention is “behavioral economics” where the state or a business manipulates the environment so you will make certain choices. For example, automatically transfer a portion of payroll to a savings account and require the individual to “opt out” rather than “opt in” which increases the statistical likelihood of saving.

No, those of us interested in the communication process, the deliberation process is epistemic; that is, communication can produce new knowledge and new possibilities. Difficult problem solving is not simply a matter of choosing a correct choice that is more rational than another, or selecting an option that has maximized value. Much of this work in “choice” and the processes that influence choices is less relevant to deliberative theorists. Deliberative communication emerges from the literature on deliberative democracy and is rooted in the advantages that accrue from reciprocity. “The basic premise of reciprocity is that participants owe one another justifications for their institutions, laws, and public policies that collectively bind them.” This means that justice and the legitimate acceptance of social and political constraints on a group must emerge from a process where all parties have had ample opportunity to engage in mutual reason-giving. From reciprocity flows respect for the other. Scholars also refer to publicity and accountability as essential conditions of deliberative democracy. That is, discussion and decision making must be public to ensure justifiability, and that those who make decisions on behalf of others must be accountable. Binding decisions lose moral legitimacy to the extent that they have been made in a manner unavailable to the public, or by individuals who are not accountable to their constituencies.

What is particularly important about deliberation from a communication perspective is its ability to transform the perspective of the individual. Election-centered and direct democratic processes value the individual, but focus primarily on the opportunity to participate. Deliberative processes draw on communication in the form of discussion and argument with the aim to change the motivations and opinions of individuals. The deliberative process contributes to a changing sense of self and identity because participants are immersed in a social system that manufactures new ways to think about problems and orient toward others. This deliberative social system moves people out of their parochial interests and contributes to a broader sense of community mindedness, as well as providing new information that clarifies and informs opinions. The issues pertinent to categorical choices are relatively inconsequential to deliberation.



About Donald Ellis

Professor emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on June 17, 2014, in Communication and Conflict Resolution, Democracy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Becky Townsend

    Hi Don–thanks for this piece. I found the reminder about communication–and therefore deliberation–as epistemic (“communication can produce new knowledge and new possibilities”) the key part in this. And that’s why I’m a bit in disagreement with a later statement about the aim of deliberative processes: “Deliberative processes draw on communication in the form of discussion and argument with the aim to change the motivations and opinions of individuals.”

    Perhaps the new knowledge, the awareness of new possibilities, can contribute to the deliberative group’s sense of themselves as a whole. The aim may not be to change the individual, but to bring about a new sense of the difficulty of a problem, or the awareness of how parts contribute to the whole. If we call that effect change, so be it. But it might not change individual motivations nor opinions and still be deliberative. At least the individual might be aware of the justifications for another’s actions and therefore accept the justification (even if disagreeing with the action). Where’s the change in that?

  2. Hi Becky: We don’t seem to be in much disagreement to me. Deliberation serves all the functions you mentioned in addition to the general practice of preference formation. I would expect that this includes changing the environment or the awareness of New complexities. But you have caused me to think a little more.


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