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.