Not my concern – how choice can make us more selfish

By Ed Yong | May 9, 2011 10:00 am

I’m at a supermarket, and I want bacon. There’s Danish or British, streaky or back, smoked or unsmoked. My quest for bread leads to a choice between white, brown, seeded, malt, thick-sliced or thin-sliced. Lettuce: romaine, gem, iceberg. Tomatoes: cherry vine, classic, baby plum, organic.

It should not be this complicated to assemble a BLT.

People in Western countries drown in choice. Want a T-shirt? Thousands of alternatives await you. Want some toothpaste? Sit down, we could be here a while. Many people see these options as a good thing – they’re a sign of our independence, our freedom, our mastery over our own destinies. But these apparent positives have a dark side.

Krishna Savani from Columbia University has found that when Americans think about the concept of choice, they’re less concerned about the public good and less empathic towards disadvantaged people. His work supports the idea that endless arrays of choice focus our attention on individual control and, by doing so, they send a message that people’s fates are their own concerns. Their lives are not the business of the state or public institutions, and if they fail, it is their own fault. With choices at hand, Americans are more likely to choose themselves.

Savani asked different groups of American students to watch a video of someone going about mundane tasks, like opening a letter, selecting a CD or eating chocolate. Half the students had to press a key when the actor made a choice; the others pressed the key whenever he touched an object. By making the students think about the mere concept of choice, Savani managed to change their attitudes towards public policies that demand individual sacrifices for the sake of wider societal goods.

Compared to their peers, the ‘choice’ students were less likely to support affirmative action – a policy that tried to provide more opportunities for disadvantaged students. They were less likely to support restrictions on violent video games, bans on vending machines near schools, environmental taxes on gas-guzzling cars, bans on intensive breeding of animals in factories, or proposals that require homeowners to install good insulation.

All of these policies restrict individual freedoms to an extent, but they could benefit society by reducing inequality, aggression, obesity, global warming and environmental pollution. In every case, the students were given clear evidence to support each position, but those who had choice on their minds were more likely to reject the policies.

This effect works both ways. The ‘choice’ students may have been more dismissive of policies that emphasise the public good, but they were happier about supporting policies that boosted their individual rights, including allowing single people to adopt children, and legalising marijuana.

Choice also changed how the students saw other people. After watching the same video and performing the same key-press task, Savani asked 54 students read six vignettes about people who had fallen on hard times. The stories told of heart attacks, car accidents, failed diplomas and physical abuse and Savani found that the ‘choice’ students were more likely to blame the hypothetical victims for their woes. And although such views were more common among the politically conservative students, even the liberals expressed more blame if they had choice on their minds.

This cold outlook even extends to people who clearly have no control over their own lives. In a final and very different experiment, Savani led 26 American students into a cubicle where some had to choose between five pens, chocolate bars, key chains and birthday cards. Others had to simply describe one of the five items, which the experimenter had chosen. In a different room, they read about the plight of Roke, a 7-year-old boy from Mali – poor, starving, and dependent on the support of charities like Save the Children.

Roke was clearly a victim of circumstances beyond his control but the ‘choice’ students were still less empathic towards him. Compared to their peers, they were less upset or touched by his condition, less likely to feel morally obliged to help, and less likely to donate money. Even after doing something as trivial as choosing a pen and a keyring, their attitudes had shifted.

Savani found completely different results when he repeated his experiment with 47 students in India. Not only were they generally more empathic and generous towards Roke, but their reactions weren’t affected by the concept of choice. “At least some of the potentially negative consequences of choice are culture-specific,” says Savani.

These experiments aren’t perfect. Some of them involved small sample sizes, there weren’t any true field experiments, and it would have been interesting to use a wider range of methods to prime the concept of choice. Nonetheless, the results are significant and consistent across the different studies. Together, they paint a picture of an America where the choices that people hold dear can turn them away from attempts to solve important social problems, or weaken their empathy towards others in need.

This isn’t the only study to explore the perils of choice. When faced with more choices, people make poorer decisions, fail to notice the difference between their options, lose motivation, and end up less happy with the choices they eventually make. Jonah Lehrer has written about these issues extensively on his excellent blog The Frontal Cortex, while Barry Schwartz has written an entire book on the subject, called The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.

Of course, choice doesn’t have to wield such a negative influence. Indeed, Savani points out that the US is one of the world’s most charitable countries. He writes, “If Americans believe that they are choosing to help other people out of their free will, or if they can affirm their selves through making choices for other people, they may be even more charitable.” The problem lies more with “choice for choice’s sake.”

Reference: Savani, K., Stephens, N., & Markus, H. (2011). The Unanticipated Interpersonal and Societal Consequences of Choice: Victim Blaming and Reduced Support for the Public Good Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611407928

Photo by Lamentables


Comments (17)

  1. Interesting studies, with unsurprising results. I think what most Americans have is more an illusion of choice rather than actual alternatives to choose from in shaping their lives. The last quote from Savani is actually even more troubling: we have to allow Americans to “affirm their selves through making choices for other people”??!! Really?! And how is that better and more “charitable”, exactly?

  2. Dan

    The last quotation also sounded odd to me; Americans are individually generous but collectively they’re quite the opposite.

  3. Solitha

    Quite an interesting read. Personally, I’ve often felt overwhelmed by the number of choices I face – for example, I hate shopping. I’ll need item X and spend far too long staring at the sheer number of variations on item X and floundering through various options trying to figure out what’s important to me.

    On the other hand, I seem to be a highly empathic person, to a point where people can have trouble figuring out how to interact with me.

    In charity, I’ve struggled to find something of a middle ground. I recall with embarrassment loading down one poor homeless guy with far more than he could possibly carry (for him and his two dogs), which fact did not penetrate my mind till long after. I find it very easy to give too much, sometimes at cost to myself, at other times making others uncomfortable (for instance, during gift-exchange holidays).

    I would never have tied it all together, but it’s quite interesting how it seems to be so.

    One thing that’s occurred to me from this… I’ve always been a bit frustrated in charity because of the sheer number of organization from which we have to choose. I’ve always felt it inefficient at best to have several different charities all trying to collect money for basically the same thing. Now I wonder if it’s not also self-defeating to have all those choices, and if charities wouldn’t do better by banding together for fundraising.

  4. Ponga

    Small sample sizes and tendentious setup, at least from your writeup… Affirmative action may well be *intended* to reduce inequality, but if you have choices on your mind, an alternative interpretation is that you might tend to think more about its actual direct and indirect effects. The same goes for the other listed illiberal ideas. Perhaps thinking about choice just stimulates thinking per se…?

    The general message isn’t all that new, if it holds up to larger sample sizes and (probably) more careful double-blinding: yes, in some respects it is easy to manipulate our decision making processes.

  5. Ecks

    @Ponga, if choice just stimulated thinking “per se” then, yes, you can make a slightly tortured case that this could make people more dubious about affirmative action, but there’s no way it should lead to people being more likely to blame the victim in situations where the victim is clearly suffering through no fault of their own… nor should it make them less likely to want to help such a victim. The pattern of results in these studies clearly describes a pattern in which participants come to view people as highly independent autonomous and self-sufficient units (leading them to think it isn’t any of their concern who you marry, but don’t bug them either if you’re suffering, as it’s just not their problem). So in other words, it makes us more individually self-absorbed… just as the writeup above describes.

    @Madhusudan, when the author talks about allowing Americans to “affirm their selves through making choices for other people” he doesn’t mean “choosing what other people must do,” he means “making the choice to help other people.” There’s a well supported finding (originally published in Science a year or two ago) showing that people are actually happier when you give them money to spend on someone else than if you give them that same money to spend on ourselves. Helping others isn’t just morally a good thing to do, it actually can reliably make us feel good too.

  6. Stuart

    I do meditation retreats roughly annually, quite long ones (10 days).

    You have no choice on these over what you eat, when you eat etc, its all laid on for you.

    After one retreat, pretty much the first thing i did when i got home was go to the supermarket. It was a really weird experience.

    I found myself stood transfixed, in fact rooted, more or less overwhelmed, by the dog food aisle. All these varieties of dog food! It was a weird, unpleasant sort of mental paralysis. Total mental overload. WAY too much choice. My brain just shut down for a few seconds.

    And I don’t even have a dog……

  7. John Moore

    The study seems to lend itself to the very core of some Marxist. It would seem that the author would rather we have only one choice for any particular item. I would be willing to bet that anyone anywhere who has to make a purchase be it an executive with tons of money to a beggar in the streets of some third world country does not think to themselves “how will this purchase help my fellow man?”. I want something I go to store and but it. I have helped the company who produced it, the store that sold it, the people in the supply chain that got it to me. The problem seems to stem from the concept that if I have a bunch of choices I will make decisions that don’t add to the collective good of mankind. Afirmitive action is as bizarre a concept as I have ever heard, in that nothing I have ever incountered in real life or nature follows this concept. In the work place for example the concept on the surface seems to suggest that I should hire a crew of people as diverse as possible so that I have not shown bigotry by hiring more of one ethinc group than another. It doesn’t matter if they are all equally qualified simply balanced. So in essence I have hired people for the sole purpose of racial equality not for skill equality. This is in and of itself a more racisit concept than not hiring caucasians because I don’t like them.

  8. Great post. I was compelled by the study which found people were happier when they had fewer (but relatively equal) choices. I wonder if this is one more motivation for companies to hide ingredients / content of products whenever they can – because consumers would be surprised at how little difference there is between toothpastes, etc.

    Both when I became a vegetarian and especially when I began trying to live a greener lifestyle, I was surprised at how much more I enjoyed grocery shopping and life in general. The “I’m doing something good” just seemed too obvious and not intuitively correct. It took a long time to figure out why I felt such peace and good energy since my life change. The idea that fewer choices combined with feeling like I was making better, wiser decisions made more sense. I feel like the products I choose to buy are from people I might even know – local merchants, part of my community, and I don’t feel like I’m choosing something which has hidden ingredients or might poison me while making some scumbag company CEO wealthy.

  9. GC

    @John Moore: ” So in essence I have hired people for the sole purpose of racial equality not for skill equality”

    1st You shouldn’t hire people just because of their race. As I recall there are no enforced quotas.

    2nd I think you do not know what affirmative action is about. Affirmative action is to prevent discriminating against equally qualified minority and/or women candidates.
    For instance if two equally qualified engineers one black and one white with the same years of experience apply for a job, affirmative action is there to ensure that both candidates are objectively evaluated.
    The same thing applies to promotions, if you have two people apply for a manager position, say a man and a woman, affirmative action ensures that the qualifications of the woman won’t be overlooked just because she’s a woman.

    Summed up affirmative action is a legal tool that tries to prevent bias.

    3rd It may be that you have either a bias against women and/or minorities.

  10. I really enjoy reading social agendas disguised as science.

    Conclusion: Having to make choices makes people smarter.

    Smarter people are more self-reliant. They don’t ask for welfare.
    American welfare has demonstrated that no amount of
    handouts will overcome the disadvantage of being stupid.

    The article simply demonstrates that stupid people are overwhelmed by choice.
    If only we could construct a society that can accommodate both.
    How about an IQ test? Below a certain score, someone else makes your choices for you!

    Conclusion: Helpless people want help. The rest of us do not.

    Perhaps it might be better to spend time comparing India to China.
    One country remains in a state of overwhelming poverty while
    another is about to become the most powerful country in the World.
    What is the difference?

    If America needs examples of a better World. Look at China, not India.

  11. Public good, what a perfectly ambiguous term. What is public good? It’s clear Savani had a laundry list of progressive public goods, but what if the test subjects didn’t share the same values. After reading the original research, I found some interesting notions. From the research, “we reasoned that choice, for all its powerful positive consequences, may also have hidden, unanticipated, and potentially negative interpersonal and collective consequences (Hanson & Hanson, 2006). We hypothesized that when the concept of choice is activated, Americans will be more likely to assume that, regardless of social contextual circumstances, individuals are responsible for their own actions and life outcomes, and that they have the right to control their own lives free from the constraints of other people and of society.”

    It’s clear that Savani et. al. start from a notion that the good of the public outweigh personal freedom and individual choice. However, after reading the study it’s clear that Mr. Wong (author of this article) has introduced his own biases on the results of the study.

    The public good evidence presented is always subject to interpretation, which leads to the incongruent results between the American and Indian students. The reason(s) behind the difference in response is more interesting than the initial research.

  12. Brian Too

    OK, choice leads to these outcomes, but why? Why does choice do this?

    I must admit to not having read the source material. So consider that.

    However I posit that the root cause is that people tend to extrapolate their circumstances out to others, especially if they have no other information or point of reference. Therefore if “I” have plentiful choices, “others” must have plentiful choices too.

    Next I go farther. If it is pointed out that people in Lesser Developed Countries might not have the same surfeit of choices, I suspect that the disengaged reaction would often be that they “should” have such choices. That implies that the citizens of the LDC have some individual or collective responsibility for the lack of choices.

    Which isn’t entirely wrong. However it’s not entirely right either.

  13. mikedelic

    if you replace the term “choice” with the term “manufactured choice” then the study and article are great. you simply cant control for the fact that the environment is too highly controlled and the choice is a manufactured and insanely reductive version of what free choice really is, which is the root of true moral beauty. any study or commentary that does not clearly address this seems like a poor choice to me.

  14. This text gave me something to think about. I think the concept of freedom sometimes is misunderstood. People tend to brag about this all the time but rarely think about the collective consequences of what this can cause to others in society.

    In this case, people tend to choose based on their needs and taste but.. if the were teach since childhood to choose based on what is better not only for they but in a social context, would the result of the study be the same?

    I think lately we have been big changes slowly happening on way people think when comes to social, we can see this with all the green and eco friendly that is going on. In my city the supermarket plastic bags were banished, without it becomes a bigger hazle to bring food from the market, however, it were well accepted by the population and now other cities are implementing this aswell.

  15. @John and Larry, I think it’s great that you have strong opinions but it would benefit you both greatly to understand a bit more about scientific method. From what I can see, there’s nothing in the study to suggest that the subjects were “stupid” or that the study was politically biased. People in behavior studies are chosen just like in any other study – they are supposed to have sufficient sample sizes, correct statistical methods and ways of measuring the results. When a study is biased, it is considered an embarassment to the researchers, just like when someone makes a serious mistake at work. Real researchers do all they can to avoid bias.

    Goodness knows, it is not easy to interpret certain behavior studies – and there are some studies with poor or biased methods – but if that’s the case, you need to say so. Read the study and point out specific flaws. Ed is simply reporting the findings. If you disagree with the results, seek to dismantle the methods.

  16. Ecks

    I think some of the comments in this thread are quite amusing. You can practically see the cogs turning in the heads of the people writing them:

    “It talks about collective interest [whir] seems to be implying it is desirable [click] but I don’t want to be told I have no choice, that would be no good! [clack whir clack] must… think… of… reasons… that this article is bad [whir whir] Choosing means freedom, right, yeah, and freedom is good, so… so smart people want good things, so choice makes people smarter… YEAH… [clack clack] so that means collective interests are bad… they’re… OMG communism!!1 [clack grind crash] Bias! Bad people! [thump spin crash] ha haaaa, I showed them. HIT THE SAVE BUTTON! BOOM GOES THE DYNAMITE! [gentle hiss and wheeze] Gosh I’m S-M-R-T smart, I really showed those crazy internet peoples.”

    (note: there’s a difference between no choice, some choice, meaningful choice, and being awash in hundreds of trivial choices. The study makes a lot more sense if you don’t gloss over this)

  17. This goes back to George Carlin’s notable quote ( ) about meaningful choice v. manufactured choice.

    Larry sounds like he’s read a lot of Ayn Rand and not thought about how utterly stupid her ideas were, while John needs to sort out his deep-seated bigotry. I’m not surprised by the inability of either of them to analyze this small study in anything other than a knee-jerk, reactionary manner.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Not Exactly Rocket Science

Dive into the awe-inspiring, beautiful and quirky world of science news with award-winning writer Ed Yong. No previous experience required.

See More

Collapse bottom bar