This article was based on the TEDGlobal 2013 Talk, “Our Unhealthy Obsession with Choice,” by Renata Salecl:
The Anxiety of Choice
In today’s times of post-industrial capitalism, choice, together with individual freedom and the idea of self-making, has been elevated to an ideal. We also have a belief in endless progress. The underside of this ideology has been an increase in anxiety, feelings of guilt, feelings of being inadequate, and feelings that we are failing in our choices. Sadly, this ideology of individual choice has prevented us from thinking about social change. It appears that this ideology is actually very efficient in pacifying us as political and social thinkers. Instead of making social critiques, we are engaging more and more in self-critique, sometimes to the point of self-destruction.
Choices Give Us a Future
You may be wondering why this ideology of choice is still so powerful, even among people who do not have many things to choose. How come even people who are poor can still identify with the idea of choice and the rational idea of choice which we embrace? It is because the ideology of choice opens up a space for us to think about some imagined future. When we consider our choices, we are thinking about how they will impact our future.
How We Make Choices
We rarely make really totally rational choices. Choices are influenced by our unconscious and by our community. We’re often choosing by guessing as to what other people would think about our choices. We also choose by looking at what others are choosing because we want to make sure our choices are socially acceptable.
Making choices can be anxiety-provoking because they can be linked to risks and losses. The outcomes of our choices are highly unpredictable. Because of this, people are struggling to make choices and often choose nothing. It was the famous Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who pointed out that anxiety is linked to the possibility of possibility.
Despite living in an era of information and big data, people are turning a blind eye to this knowledge. Ignorance and denial are on the rise. Even in regard to current social crises, people think that we will just wake up and everything will be the same as before, and no political or social changes are needed. In regard to ecological crises, we think nothing needs to be done just now because others need to act before us. Even when an ecological crisis has already happened, like the catastrophe in Fukushima, we had people living in the same environment with the same amount of information, and half of them were anxious about radiation and half of them ignored it.
In addition to facing ignorance, we are also facing a kind of obviousness. The French philosopher, Louis Althusser, pointed out that ideology functions in such a way that it creates a veil of obviousness. Before we do any social critique, it is necessary to lift that veil of obviousness and think differently.
When we are anxious over choices, sometimes we easily give our power of choice away. We identify with the guru or self-help therapist who tells us what to do. We embrace a totalitarian leader who appears to have no doubts about choices.
Choices Lead to Change
When thinking about your choices, you need to stop taking them too seriously and too personally. Much of the decision-making that comes with choice is not rational. It’s linked to the unconscious, your guesses of what others are choosing, or what may be the socially embraced choice. There is also the idea that we should go beyond thinking about individual choices; it’s very important to rethink social choices. The ideology of individual choice has pacified us and prevented us from thinking about social change. We spend so much time choosing things for ourselves that we barely reflect on communal choices we can make.
We should not forget that choice is always linked to change. We can make individual changes, but we can also make social changes with our choices. We can choose to have more wolves and we can choose to change our environment to have more bees. We can choose to have different rating agencies. We can choose to control corporations instead of allowing corporations to control us. We have endless opportunities to make changes with our choices.