Monthly Archives: December 2013

Too Many Options: Some Thoughts

This post continues where the last one left off – still looking at the idea of having too many options, of “overchoice.” At the end of the last post I made a few tongue-in-cheek comparisons between the marriage market and the Columbia/Stanford psych study.

As a side note: society in the USA is so wealthy that even poor people have an enormous number of options. Intellectuals and do-gooders have written many books and essays against the evils of “the consumer-driven lifestyle.” Isn’t it interesting, though, that these authors never target the college hookup market? Hmm…

Today I’d like to look at two of the ideas that were posited by the study’s authors (and Toffler): paralysis caused by overchoice and the advantages of having a large choice set when the consumer already has an idea what he wants.

That study examined choices that were of a minor, discretionary nature. The choice of buying jam, eating chocolates, or getting a little extra credit in class aren’t exactly critical. That’s part of what makes the social “sciences” less than scientific. To attempt a similar experiment regarding something of real significance – like choosing a mate – would be unethical. Can you imagine the uproar if researchers took hundreds of young men and women and forced them to marry, or even hook up with, choices from random sample groups? Shades of The Harrad Experiment.

Our desire to remain ethical forces us to use anecdotal evidence. Remember the young woman I mentioned at the beginning of this month? She had lots of options – “several” of her boyfriends proposed to her. But she dithered – she simply couldn’t bring herself to make a choice. Finally, at age 30, she latched onto the only boy who still seemed interested in her.

I’ve seen this same effect in my own life when making choices. When something is a “want,” I tend to spend months researching my options. On the other hand, I can make my selection very quickly once I’ve identified a need.

Choosing a new car is good illustration of this. We (guys) often dream about the perfect car for us – usually something way out of our price range. We’re such romantics! But, when a new (or new to us) car is needed, our practical side kicks in. First, we determine how much we can afford to spend (in time and money). With that price in mind we make a short list of suitable cars. Then we go out, do a couple of test drives, and make our purchase. The whole process generally takes less than a week – it’s often completed over a weekend.

The evidence seems to indicate that indecision – overchoice paralysis – can be overcome in two steps. First, decide that you have a need. Second, limit your choices ahead of time by deciding what will fulfill that need (in your price range).

Here is where a problem arises among young women picking a marriage mate.

No Need

Girls today are encouraged to think of marriage as something they might do someday. College is a need. Career is a need. Marriage is something you do after the needs are fulfilled.

Failure to Make a Short List

Young “ladies” are rarely taught to get realistic about what to look for in a marriage partner. Their lists of requirements for a future partner are parallel with a young man’s fantasy car: the speed of a Bugatti Veyron, the off-road capabilities of a Jeep Wrangler, and the practicality of a Toyota Corolla. Even a teenage boy recognizes that this car is a fantasy!

Unfortunately, girls in college get to “test drive” many different men. Because of the shallowness of their bedroom relationships they might even get the idea that the wealthy man, the wild rock star, the jock, the sensitive guy, and the intense revolutionary could all, somehow, be combined in one person.

This experience builds unrealistic and inherently contradictory expectations.

“Settling” for Reality

Then, sometime around 30, they notice that their biological clock is ticking. Marriage suddenly becomes a need. They take a quick glance around at the available young men and make a choice from the handful of available options. Pray God they still have enough looks and personality to have some options!

At this point in their life they finally achieved the two prerequisites to overcome indecision. They have a need. Their options are limited. That makes deciding much easier.

But what about the problem of girls in this age group being forced to “settle” for someone who is “beneath” them in marriage market value? This problem exists only in their minds; it’s based on their unrealistic expectations.

If these women had made an honest accounting of what was required to satisfy their marriage needs, these men would’ve been on the short list. These are men very much like those they friend-listed at age nineteen. Of course, the ones still unmarried by this time are not the ones from the top of the list!

I find it hard to blame the girls for this problem. I know the sort of families and society they grew up in. Their parents and churches failed them. Their schools and the various media deliberately misled them. Sunshine Mary just wrote a sympathetically post about their plight.

Too Many Options: Background

I’m still thinking about the rising age of first marriages. Could it simply be caused by the multitude of choices that modern girls have available to them?

I remember back in the 70s—in high school—when read Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. (Americans were consuming large numbers of anti-consumer books back then.)  Toffler was one of the pundits warning that consumers were being paralyzed into indecision by having too many choices: he coined the term, “overchoice.”

A bit of online research turned up an article from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2000, Vol. 79, No. 6, by Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper. It made for fascinating reading. I will attempt to summarize some of their findings and then I’ll extrapolate to the question of marriage choice.

Summary of “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?”

In their summary of previous research Iyengar and Lepper point out that choice among relatively limited alternatives is more beneficial than no choice at all. Having some sort of choice is better than none from the point of view of being satisfied with the outcome.

They further noted that a large choice set could yield greater satisfaction if consumers already have strong preferences. Their example was a restaurant with an extensive menu. If each diner already has an idea of what he wants then a satisfactory choice is more likely.

Their research project was a study that compared a limited number of choices (6) and a large number of choices (24-30). They conducted three different experiments along these lines. A short summary of the results is rather interesting; please refer to the original article for more details.

In their first to study they set up a “tasting table” in a high-end grocery store. On different weekends their tables either displayed six choices of exotic jams or twenty-four choices (all from the same manufacturer). The shoppers who approached the table were offered the chance to sample as many of the different flavors as they liked and each person was given a one-dollar-off coupon toward the purchase of any flavor.

The results were quite interesting. When a large number of choices was offered, 60% of those who passed the table stopped to sample. The smaller display drew only 40% of the passers-by. By tracking the coupons, however, the researchers discovered that only 3% of the people who stopped at the large display purchased a jar of jam. Of those who stopped at the smaller display, 30% made a purchase!

The second study involved a lecture class of students offered an essay assignment for extra credit. The students were informed that the essays would not be graded – they would get the extra credit just for turning them in. About two thirds of the students were given a sheet with a choice of 30 different essay subjects. The rest of the students were given a sheet with only six choices.

The group given the larger number of choices had a 60% completion rate. Of those given six choices, fully 74% turned in their essays. For research purposes, the essays were graded by teaching assistants unaware of the experiment. The grades revealed that the students given fewer choices did higher-quality work.

The third experiment involved a taste-test of Godiva chocolates. The students involved were queried beforehand; only those inexperienced with this brand of chocolate were included in the test.

In this case there were three groups. One group was allowed to select one chocolate from among thirty different choices; the second could choose from among six samples, and the third was given no choice – a research assistant selected their sample from among the choices. This study involved the extensive use of questionnaires.

One objective measure of the process was the time required. The students with 30 choices needed an average of 24 seconds to make their decision. Those with only six choices made the decision in less than nine seconds. Not surprisingly, the thirty-sample group reported that the selection process was simultaneously more enjoyable, more difficult, and more frustrating. Both groups were equal in their perception (before tasting) that they had made a satisfactory choice.

After they had tasted their samples the no-choice group was the least satisfied, followed by the extensive-choice group. The limited-choice group, by a large margin, reported gaining the greatest enjoyment from their chocolate.

Each participant was to be paid five dollars. After the study they were offered either five dollars in cash or a five-dollar box of Godiva chocolates. 10% of the no-choice group chose the chocolates over the cash. Of the 30-sample group, 12% chose the candy. In the limited-selection group, 48% chose to take a box of chocolates rather than a $5 bill.

Spurious Correlations with Marriage (just for fun)

  1. Previous research and experiment #3 seem to indicate that having no choice doesn’t give the most satisfactory results. So much for “arranged marriages,” at least in the USA.
  2. Those given an extensive choice needed 2.7 times as long to reach a decision (experiment #3). If we assume that the majority of women (in earlier times) made their selection in four years (age 18 to 22), then “large choice” women of today would require 11 years – through age 29!
  3. A limited-choice display is much less attractive (experiment #1). 72% of female High School graduates immediately go on to college – the “large-choice display.”
  4. Of those who encountered a large-choice display, only 1.8% made a purchase. For the limited-choice display, 12% made a purchase: it was 6.7 times as effective (experiment #1). See #5, below.
  5. The small-choice sample was 4 times as effective in “making a sale” in experiment #3. U.S. women (ages 40-44) who have never had a child rose from 10% in 1976 to 18% in 2008.
  6. Having fewer choices lead to greater eating pleasure. Hmm. This would be difficult to correlate with divorce rate: how do we correct for no-fault and welfare?
  7. Having a large number of choices was more enjoyable, more difficult, and more frustrating. Sounds like hook-up culture.

I’ll post a little more analysis in a day or two.


Primitive Societies

Marriage, or something very much like it, is of critical importance in advanced societies. Sunshine Mary recently had a post pointing out the dangers of anthropological studies of primitive cultures. When I was a sophomore in high school – way back in the early 70s – I remember reading the same thing in Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape. He felt that studying the sexual habits of primitive societies was useless because their sexual habits might be why they remained primitive.

No wonder Feminists get so excited about this sort of study. They’re barbarians.

Are Marriage-Age Statistics Significant?

According to government statistics as reported by Dalrock, the age at which young people are getting married has been steadily rising. When I encounter government statistics a question always comes to mind: do these numbers have any significance in the real world?

I’m not, in this case, questioning the accuracy of the statistics. Let’s assume that the number of government marriage licenses is being reported with sufficient accuracy. But there’s no biblical commandment to get a marriage license. Do these colored lines really equate with the number of people becoming married?

The answer, of course, is yes and no.

In Western society it has become acceptable to have a pre-marriage relationship called “dating.” After a few “dates,” sexual intercourse is generally taken for granted. It’s also acceptable, even encouraged, for dating couples in a long term relationship (LTR) to move in together, to engage in cohabitation.

Cohabitation has many of the same benefits as marriage. In lots of ways it’s a satisfactory substitute. Many have noted that the breakup of a cohabiting couple is very like divorce. It seems that these couples actually do bond, physically and psychologically, just like marrieds. If we could somehow include LTR couples with those buying marriage licenses we might find that age-at-first-marriage has remained fairly constant over the years.

This would indicate that the statistics are not useful.

On the other hand…

Most Americans today, even Christians, think of government as being the final arbiter of right and wrong: a marriage isn’t a marriage unless a license says so. It’s rare to find a husband and wife who lack a marriage license (I’m personally aware of only one such couple). Their numbers are statistically insignificant.

And “living together” evades the major prerequisite for marriage, both biblical and secular. There is no conscious commitment – no contract or covenant between the partners. In our culture a marriage license has become functionally equivalent to commitment. In this light, cohabitation is almost never a “real” marriage.

This leads me to conclude that the statistics do have significance.


Courtship 2: Contemporary

Things have changed considerably from the old courtship days. Now, of course, parents, schools, and churches are not teaching reasonable expectations for marriage. The emphasis is on romantic love and finding the “perfect” mate. Not that I’m knocking romantic love—it sure beats booze for getting high! I just realize that it is an extreme example of eros.

Today young (and not-so-young) people are expected to date – which includes church socials, drunken parties, and making out in automobiles. Sometimes on the same day. Not all of these venues seem like especially good opportunities to spend quality one-on-one time with a young person of the opposite sex.

This modern version of courtship includes dating many, many people in a frantic search for “the one.” The kids are told that, when you find the right person, you’ll “just know.” But, honestly, the number of people that we get to know well through dating is probably no larger than in an old-fashioned courtship. Mostly, we date a new person once or twice and then move on without ever really getting to know them.

And we have no idea what they are really like back home in Cedar Rapids.

How well has this worked? Dalrock has several interesting posts on modern courtship: according to this one, almost 48% of women have never married before they turn 30!

I’ve also been reading Sunshine Mary’s blog regarding her take on a proper Christian marriage. This intrigues me; I have two sons in their early twenties and I would very much like for them to have healthy marriages.

My curiosity was piqued; how do young women today decide when (and who) to marry?

A Google search using the term, “who to marry christian,” led me to an article on the Christian Broadcasting Network website. It was the first article listed—after the ads.

The whole article is well worth reading (in a nausea-inducing way). The writer is Ms. Belinda Elliott. I’ve reproduced about half of the column here, the important bits:

I had dated several guys who wanted to become more serious, but when they would start talking about marriage I would start backing away – quickly. Marriage was a huge commitment, and I wasn’t about to take it lightly. In all of my relationships I had never felt like I knew for sure that the guy was the one.

So how do you know for sure? I would like to offer some ideas. These are things that helped me when I was facing the same decision.

In my case, I already knew Matt quite well. We had attended college together and had become good friends. We even went on a couple dates, but I was never interested in anything more than friendship. But eight years later that friendship had turned into something more, and we began dating. However, I still wasn’t sure I wanted to marry him.

What did it take to convince me? A lot of talking. I don’t mean that he spent hours trying to talk me into it. I mean that we had to discuss a lot of things. I wanted to know all about him, his hopes, his dreams, his fears, his expectations for marriage, and anything else I could think of. I wanted to talk about every possible situation that could arise in a marriage and find out how he would handle it.

The questions covered everything from how many kids we each wanted and where we would like to live to who would do the dishes and take out the trash. You can find many of the questions we used in the book, 1000 Questions for Couples by Michael Webb.

So how do you know for sure? I think my friends were partially right. In a sense, you do ”just know,” but it isn’t because of some magical feeling that all is right with the world. Just knowing comes from time spent contemplating your similarities, your differences, and how well you fit together. It comes from asking God in prayer if this is His will for you.

Let me interpret.

Ms. Elliott attended University where she was “friends” with Matt. That means he wasn’t “high-quality” enough to sleep with – she reserved that privilege for the jocks and jerks (with Beemers).

After college she got involved in her career – and riding the cock carousel. She “dated” several guys who proposed marriage to her but, because of her fear of not getting “Mr. Right,” she dumped them. She was in a number of relationships (practice marriages) so she’s had lots of experience at breaking up (practice divorces). Suddenly, at about 30, she came down with a bad case of “baby rabies.”

Frantically, she started running down the list of all the guys to whom she had ever said, “let’s just be friends.” She was smart enough not to marry a jerk; she knew that her LJBF list contained all of the steady, reliable men she had ever known. She discovered, to her horror, that all of them were married – except Matt, a guy she hadn’t seen much since college. But (thank God!) he was still available and still remembered her as a cute college girl. He hardly even noticed the wrinkles around her eyes.

So, after a couple of months of long-distance interrogation communication to ensure that he will allow her to run the marriage, she settles for him knows that “he’s the one!”

You might have noticed that she talks about praying, asking God if it was His will. I guess she didn’t do any praying about the situation in the twelve preceding years. Was she afraid God would say, “Yes?” She would have to give up partying!

She thoughtfully references an interrogation manual for prospective husbands. In it “[y]ou can find many of the questions we used…” Many of? 1000 weren’t enough?

My favorite quote is, “I wanted to talk about every possible situation that could arise in a marriage and find out how he would handle it.” She’s definitely going to be the captain of this boat.

This sad scenario is what CBN holds up as the standard for a Christian woman choosing a husband. I want better for my sons.