The Agony of Choice
Issue   |   Wed, 09/16/2015 - 00:09

With the news that Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry, former three-term governor of Texas, was suspending his campaign for the Republican nomination, Republican voters found their choices whittled to a slightly more manageable 16 candidates. Democrats are not likely to see Vice President Joe Biden pursue the nomination for his party as they witness him publicly struggle with the emotional wound left by the death of his son, Beau.

Such paring of potential candidates would seem to be a good thing for both parties and the American people as a whole. But the aforementioned 16 (yes, you will still have to use both feet to count them out) remaining Republicans do nothing to aid the voters’ conundrum of whom to choose. The Democrats still have five candidates to pare down, which could expand to eight, as a Sept. 9 article by Patrick Healy in the New York Times imagined, alluding to fears held by Democrats Hillary Clinton that could lead to a “Plan B” choice among former candidates such as Al Gore and John Kerry.

For several decades, scientists studying the economics of choice have proposed and tested the theory that consumers are not better off by having a greater selection. A study by Dr. Sheena Iyengar, an economist and social psychologist, demonstrated this idea using jam in a supermarket. Two different displays of jams, all made by one company, were arranged. One display had six types of jam; the other had 24. Both offered taste samples. About 60 percent of customers were lured to the display of 24 jams, compared with forty percent stopping by the display of six jams. However, roughly 30 percent of those faced with the display of six walked away having purchased a jar, while only 3 percent choosing among 24 jams did so.

This study supports the theory that when it comes to choices, more is not necessarily better. In fact, too many choices — such as the whopping 20-plus candidates seeking a seat in the Oval Office — can make it difficult for the consumer, or voter, to separate and register the sheer number of choices from the actual differences in information offered by each choice. Other studies similar to Iyengar’s have expanded upon her results, revealing that too many choices often left the participants wondering whether they had made the right choice. In other words, when a person starts with more options to choose from, he might actually be less satisfied once he makes his decision.

Take this back to the elections, and it becomes a little easier to understand why many Americans are paralyzed in trying to sort through the number of candidates. It’s a challenge to even name all of them off the top of one’s head. Recent polls show voters increasingly torn as they try to choose a candidate; in fact, the small differences in the percentage of supporters in some polls reveal a statistical tie. Compounding the issue, Clinton’s sudden slip in the polls to Bernie Sanders has not led supporters to move definitively toward Sanders, or even one of the other candidates (Who are they, again? Do they even matter? Or are they just generic jams stacked next to the Smuckers?). Rather, it has led party leaders to consider introducing even more candidates.

The number of options daunts us so that one can hardly separate the candidates based on the details of their positions. It’s almost easier to say, “I don’t know enough about him or her,” and just go with the best-known candidate, ignoring the other choices as though they never even existed.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders align on some issues, such as funding public education, but the nuances of their proposals are hard to sort out among all the other noise in the election. To be informed, it is not enough to know how those two are different from each other — one also must know how different they are from the other three or four on their own side. Not to mention the 16 on the Republican side, who all have their own specific (or not…) proposals about, say, education policy.

One might know Donald Trump and George Bush both advocate similar tax laws on corporations, but attempting to understand the differences is daunting when one first has to figure out what the other 14 Republicans propose on the topic.
It’s difficult to sort out the candidates, let alone arrive at the point where we can assess their differences, leaving voters more likely to wonder if theirs is the “correct” choice.

Iyengar’s study is illustrative in the current political world. Like too many choices of jam or cereal or energy bars, or any other products that line our grocery aisles, our current national election is so full of candidates that voters may not even know where to begin to evaluate them. Not to mention, once one takes a position, one, two, or all twenty of the others push him or her to alter the stance for popularity’s sake and further add to the confusion.

One could argue that such competition will ultimately lead to a refined candidate who pulls together the most appealing aspects of the field to make a veritable “super-candidate.” Perhaps that would be true in a world where we had enough time. But we don’t have that luxury. Whether Biden enters the race, another Republican falters and withdraws, or a third-party (please, no more!) emerges, it still seems almost impossibly difficult to choose.

Alas, start sorting your information now. Make notecards, conduct research, differentiate — make, if you will, a list of ingredients, nutritional differences. Try not to be goaded by the large jam display; create for yourself a smaller selection. Look among the few who are not just another name-brand imitation. It is not breadth of candidates we need, so explore, taste and choose based on an understanding of their depths.