Western culture and American mores venerate the ability to make decisions based on free will. An underlying assumption is that this freedom will convey happiness and well-being.
New research suggests otherwise as choice may not be the key to happiness explains a study in the Journal of Consumer Research.
“Americans live in a political, social, and historical context that advances personal freedom, choice, and self-determination above all else,” write authors Hazel Rose Markus (Stanford University) and Barry Schwartz (Swarthmore College).
“Contemporary psychology has proliferated this emphasis on choice and self-determination as the key to healthy psychological functioning.”
The authors point out that this emphasis on choice and freedom is not universal.
“The picture presented by a half-century of research may present an accurate picture of the psychological importance of choice, freedom, and autonomy among middle-class, college-educated Americans, but this is a picture that leaves about 95 percent of the world’s population outside its frame,” the authors write.
The authors reviewed a body of research surrounding the cultural ideas surrounding choice. They found that among non-Western cultures and among working-class Westerners, freedom and choice are less important or mean something different than they do for the university-educated people who have participated in psychological research on choice.
“And even what counts as a ‘choice’ may be different for non-Westerners than it is for Westerners,” the authors write.
“Moreover, the enormous opportunity for growth and self-advancement that flows from unlimited freedom of choice may diminish rather than enhance subjective well-being.”
People can become paralyzed by unlimited choice, and find less satisfaction with their decisions.
Choice can also foster a lack of empathy, the authors found, because it can focus people on their own preferences and on themselves at the expense of the preferences of others and of society as a whole.
“We cannot assume that choice, as understood by educated, affluent Westerners, is a universal aspiration, and that the provision of choice will necessarily foster freedom and well-being,” the authors write.
“Even in contexts where choice can foster freedom, empowerment, and independence, it is not an unalloyed good. Choice can also produce a numbing uncertainty, depression, and selfishness.”