In this RSA Animate, Professor Renata Salecl explores the paralysing anxiety and dissatisfaction surrounding limitless choice
Especially since the collapse of Communism, more people have tended to associate increasing freedom of choice with positive social change, however, psychologists have found that too much choice has negative consequences
- It can lead to feelings of anxiety
- It can pacify us as we are frozen in indecisiveness
Why does choice lead to anxiety?
Firstly, Because our choices are not simply an individual action: when we make a choice we are thinking about how others will judge us on the basis of those choices and the critieria we used to make those choices, so choice is social. To illustrate this she used an example of someone who agonises over a wine choice in a restaurant – too expensive = showing off, too cheap = skinflint and so the range of actual choices narrows to something in the middle.
Secondly, because we are always trying to make an ideal choice – Switching partners or electricity bills for example
Thirdly, choice always involves loss: when we make a choice, we lose the possibility of another.
Another process at work in a society obsessed with choice is that we look at our own lives and know that they are mundane compared to the fantastic lives of those who have made the ‘right choices’ which are presented to us in the media (mainly through celebrity culture where people get famous for just being rather than doing). But we do not state how mundane our own lives actually are, we keep quiet because we feel a sense of shame, a sense of personal responsibility for our own failures – We think that if we fail it is our fault, our fault for making the wrong choices.
This all goes back to Capitalism cashing in on the idea that anyone can make it, anyone can become a self-made man (despite the fact that. structurally, this is impossible), and today this same idea is perpetuated through the ideology of choice, both in terms of consumption, and in every aspects of our lives (‘I should be free to choose my job/ partner/ sexuality/ etc.’).
To round off, Salecl draws on Freud to point out that Capitalism, a system that ‘progresseses’ through ever faster changes, and through making us work longer hours, and through turning us into consumers, creates subjects who at some point come to think that they are in control of their own lives… But they understand this control through ‘consumption’, and at some point they start consuming themselves – which is why there is so much Bulemia and workaholism, so much addiction, in society…
Finally, Salecl argues that the ideology of choice prevents social change.. because when we mistakenly think we are in charge of our own destinies, when things go wrong, this turns to self-criticism and strategies for making our lives better or just coping.
Brief comment -
Some nice ideas here that bring together themes from Giddens (addiction) and Bauman (individualisation, and I even get a smattering of Jamison’s postmodernism as the cultural logic of late capitalism… but TBH I don’t actually see that much that’s actually new!