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Choice and Change: How Much Freedom Do We Have?

One of the benefits of adulthood is the opportunity to make choices. Children often bemoan the lack of control they have over their lives. Parents, teachers, coaches, clergy, police, even strangers they encounter tell them what to do on a daily basis and they are expected to comply or face consequences. Of course, some chafe against authority and others lower their heads and succumb reluctantly. A third group evaluates the guidance and decides for themselves which path to take.

Adults who offer choices, such as, “Would you like to wear the blue pants or red pants?” or “Would you like oatmeal or pancakes for breakfast?” give them a sense of autonomy, even while providing structure.

I recall a conversation with a child many years ago who complained that: “Adults get to do whatever they want. It’s easy for them.” I smiled and reminded him that while adults have greater freedom, along with that comes additional responsibility for their decisions. Now, as an adult, he understands that dynamic and is more mindful of his choices. He has learned the art, as his wife states, of “adulting.”

Sound decision-making is a skill that can be learned, regardless of whether it is modeled for children by their elders. There is a story about two men who grew up with an alcoholic father. One followed in his father’s footsteps and the other abstained completely. When asked what prompted their behavior, both replied, “I watched my father.” On some level, the man who chose the path of sobriety knew he didn’t want to end up with the consequences of drinking that he observed his father and brother experiencing. 

As adults, we are faced with choices throughout the day, from how late to stay up, to what time to rouse ourselves from bed, and what to eat for breakfast, from what to wear, to what route to take to work. We choose whether to engage in health-inducing habits or high-risk behaviors. 

On a deeper level, we choose what to believe spiritually and who we can trust. We enter into dating, mating, and relating based on our personal criteria. We have the right to determine our career options and follow our passion and purpose into a job that suits us. 

What is the impact of a sense of autonomy?

On the NPR podcast called The Hidden Brain, a recent topic was “The Choices Before Us: Can Fewer Options Lead To Better Decisions?” The host, Shankar Vedantam, spoke with Columbia professor of psychology Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing. She expressed with certainty, that we feel happy when we believe we have control and can exhibit a sense of autonomy, which is true whether our choices are minor or major in terms of the impact on our lives.

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Iyengar cites her famous “Jam Experiment” in which shoppers were presented with two different tables filled with luscious jam. One had six flavors, the other had 24 from which they could sample. More people stopped to taste test from the second table, but a higher percentage of people, (30% vs. 3%) actually purchased the product from the table that contained six option. The findings indicated that when presented with too many choices, people get overwhelmed.

A humorous scene from the movie called Moscow on the Hudson highlights that dilemma. The film takes place during The Cold War. Robin Williams plays a Russian saxophone player named Vladimir Ivanoff who, while on a trip to New York decides to seek asylum and defects. While acclimating himself to American culture, he enters a supermarket where he discovers, to his surprise, that not only is there no line to wait to purchase coffee as he is accustomed to in his home country, but there are so many options that he falls to the floor, after reading the labels aloud and cries out, “Coffee, coffee, coffee.”

Do we want people to run our lives, so we don’t have to make choices? 

In my work as a therapist, I have encountered clients who would prefer that others make their determinations for them, since they don’t trust their own discernment. They become dependent on parents, partners, and friends to tell them what to do. It can become a quandary for them since they often end up resenting what they perceive as the source of their emotional sustenance. Their fear of negative results causes them to procrastinate or experience ‘analysis paralysis’ as they contemplate which way to turn. Like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, they would tie themselves in knots, pointing in two directions. My role as a therapist is to empower them to make informed choices.

To encourage them to step up and claim their right to choose, I ask them to do a cost-benefit analysis. I have them inquire:

  1. What will it cost me in time, money, energy, relationship, job, or health if I choose this option?
  2. How will it enhance my life in all of the aforementioned realms if I choose this option?
  3. Can I envision a life in which I have chosen door #1 or door #2?

I remind them that they can choose again, if what they are doing doesn’t serve them.

Enter COVID-19 and our choices become limited. At the moment, we can’t come and go casually. Leaving the house can become an ordeal, that involves girding ourselves with gloves, masks, and hand sanitizer. Physical distancing has become important, as we are reminded that it helps to prevent the spread of the virus. At a time when we are most in need of human contact, it has become something to fear. Even so, we have a choice of whether to ignore medical advice or adhere to the guidance and minimize risk. 

In American culture, we are indoctrinated to value freedom over the good of the collective. It may be what is behind the protests about “opening up the country,” for reasons other than financial. While it is completely understandable that people are experiencing cabin fever and want to travel farther than from bedroom to dining room as I do when I work with my clients via telehealth, in order to be concerned with the impact it has on anyone else they may encounter, conscious choices need to be made.

In a recent conversation with someone who, along with her husband, contracted the virus and are now on the other side of it, she shared that she is conscientious about the steps she needs to take to protect herself and others when they leave the house. He is more cavalier in his approach, shrugging off hand sanitizer when she offers it to him. The irony is that his symptoms were far more severe. He would likely say that he wouldn’t want anyone else to suffer as he had, and yet, his actions don’t align with his feelings. Cognitive dissonance at play.

As we exercise our freedoms, a pressing question is “Do I have the right to make choices that negatively impact others?”

A friend commented that while he chooses to wear a mask when in public (particularly because he lives in New York City), he will do his best not to judge those who refuse to wear one since they feel it infringes on their rights. He added, that with choice comes responsibility. Actions always have consequences. 

Choice and Change: How Much Freedom Do We Have?

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author.

APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2020). Choice and Change: How Much Freedom Do We Have?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 21 Jun 2020 (Originally: 22 Jun 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 21 Jun 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.