Problem of plenty

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ISSUE A simple shopping trip can be mentally and physically exhausting

SHOP TILL YOU DROP? There's so much to buy, but it's so hard to choose Photo: AP
SHOP TILL YOU DROP? There's so much to buy, but it's so hard to choose Photo: AP

S imple grocery shopping is now a full-blown super-market dilemma demanding a series of decisions in crowded aisles. Surf or Ariel? Pears or Dove? Colgate Sensitive or Sensodyne? Lipton or Brooke Bond? Bru Instant or Nescafe? Domex or Lysol? Regular atta/rice/dal or branded ones? You agonise over Sony/Panasonic/Samsung TVs, over IFB/Siemens dishwashers. Your Windows XP is fine, but isn't it time to switch to Ubuntu to cut down spam?

“Choice is good” is rule 1 of the consumer manual. It's empowerment, self-determination. But since psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote explosively in 2006 that choice does not make us freer but more paralysed, not happier but more dissatisfied, researchers have had a closer look at his “paradox of choice”.

An overflow of choices can cripple us with indecision and leave us depressed, they say. Think haggling. “Hurray!” you pulled off a bargain only to face the demon thought: I should have asked for less!

Multiple choices mean multiple decisions, less-than-optimum satisfaction. If your choice proves wrong, you get heartache. Choices make you go for a purely selfish decision, not one that'll do people good (you own a petrol-guzzling, road-hogging SUV?). In exercising choice, you fall for ad hype. You compromise on checking (read the nutrition/best before labels?) bombarded by rows and rows of stuff. You end up spending too much time and energy. .

Decision fatigue

Experiments show that the need to make decisions continuously can wear us down mentally. This condition is now called “decision fatigue.”

Upshot: HR executives interviewing dozens of people at a stretch misjudge candidates at the end of the day; CEOs make disastrous alliances when night falls; shoppers pick mediocre footwear on the way home after work; Decision fatigue makes us blow our top at colleagues and spouse, splurge on stuff we don't really want, buy junk food. We become poor “deciders”. Researchers say this “warped judgment syndrome” affects everyone — rich/poor, executive/non-executive, homemaker/air-hostess. Small, big decisions, they all add up.

Writing in The Times , John Tierney says, “No matter how rational you try to be, you can't make decision after decision without paying a biological price.” After day-long decisions, you look for shortcuts. Drained of mental energy, you get reckless, or do nothing. Ducking a decision may ease mental strain, but could bring on bigger problems. Making choices — browse websites for computers/cellphones — could sap your willpower. Your willpower drops, when you shop till you drop. “Choice is not freedom, it's tyranny,” says Kumar who's buying a new car. “Its price range, type (MPV, 4x4, size, etc.), model, diesel/petrol/eco-friendly options, accessories, finance packages. It is endless!” He heard a student say, “Any course!” after reading a prospectus. Why do we ask the waiter, “What would you recommend?” he wonders.

Decision fatigue leaves you vulnerable to marketers who know how to time their sales. Remember the chocolates at the cash register? You are tired after all the shopping decisions, and more likely to yield to temptation. But alas, there are no tell-tale signs of when you're out of mental fuel, when you're low on willpower.

Common sense

Use common sense to save mental energy, say seasoned shoppers. “Go for reputed brands,” says Mohana, who buys shampoo bottles that fit on her bathroom shelf. “They don't compromise on raw materials. Come on, your hair will never look like that of the models in the ads. Allot a price range and shop within that.” While her husband buys all the cosmetics from one brand, a friend combats decision fatigue by buying products endorsed by a favourite actor. Use the Internet as a pro-consumer tool, says Rush Parekh of Team BHP, who took less than 60 minutes to spot the car he wanted. “Access information, owner reviews. Test drive. Buying a car is a big moment; don't let decision fatigue bring bitterness to the process.”

Structuring your life will help, say doctors. After a bout of decision-making, take a break. Avoid endless meetings, limitless buffets. In experiments, a shot of glucose seemed to restore mental energy. Avoid making major decisions late in the afternoon. If you have to, see that you've had a meal and feel rested. Learn when not to trust yourself.





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