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The Paradox Of Choices – The Coaching Room

Professor Renata Salecl, a Slovenian sociologist, looks at the ideology of choice and the paradox it creates.  Although choice is thought to be a benefit of capitalism, she explores the anxiety and dissatisfaction of having too many choices.


RSA ANIMATE: The Paradox of Choice


Communism is a social system that is known for limiting choices.  At the end of communism, there was social change and citizens found a new freedom with choices and rights they had never before been afforded.  Today this change continues as our choices and rights increase, but Salecl wonders if this may not be as beneficial as people think.

Capitalism is a system based on having unlimited choices where things happen faster.  We work longer hours, and we are constantly consuming.  The problem is that capitalism has created a kind of subjectivity where choices have become detrimental to the individual.  

At some point, the individual starts believing that he determines his fate. This ideological turn allows the system to create a sense of submission within a person where he comes to believe that he controls his destiny.

Eventually, this overworked subject cannot slow the constant consumption. This leads to many of the common addictions that have become prevalent in today’s society.

In our world of overwhelming choices, people are starting to feel a sense of anxiety that they may not make the right choices.  Current debates in psychology and behavioral economics try to discern why having choices can lead to a sense of anxiety instead of happiness.  

Instead of quickly making a decision and moving on, people can become so overwhelmed that they become frozen in a state of indecisiveness where they don’t make any choices.


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Suddenly the ideology of choice, which was thought to represent freedom, has become more of a burden.  To understand how this has happened, you need to understand the thought process involved in making even the simplest of choices.  There are three main reasons people become overwhelmed with anxiety when making a decision.

• Our choices are a reflection of ourselves.  When we make a choice, we evaluate the choices others have made.  Our choices are not based only on our internal thought process, but they include an evaluation of the choices others made in the same situation.   As a society, we are focused on how others will perceive us and quite often we choose what other people are choosing.  If we make more individualized decisions, we then risk becoming obsessed with how others will regard us in regard to the choices we make.

• When faced with a choice, we want to choose the best option, but often we second guess ourselves.  With so many choices, we fear that there may be something better we are missing. This is why people so often switch cellular providers or jump from relationship to relationship.  Despite the thought and research we put into making our choices we are often left feeling dissatisfied that we could have chosen something better.

• The problem with choice is that we cannot choose everything.  This leaves us with a feeling of loss – when you choose one direction, you lose the possibility of another and dealing with loss is highly anxiety provoking.

Today’s ideology of choice and its benefits makes us accountable for our actions.  Because of the choices we make, when we are faced with our failures, we have no one to blame but ourselves.  This has become part of our culture in the workplace.  If you if you lose your job you may blame yourself because if you had made better choices, perhaps you would not have been let go.  

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With all of the choices available to us, we have become a society that is focused on becoming better.  The idea of being the master of your own destiny used to be based on the principal that your choices would shape your life.  

If you chose to educate yourself or work hard, there were unlimited possibilities for your success.  Today, that idea still exists but it has been pushed to its limit with people believing that anyone can become a celebrity.  

In the past people wanted to be known for doing something noteworthy or having a special skill.  Today, people expect fame and recognition for trivial things.  Because the standard has been lowered, those who have not achieved fame perceive themselves as failures, leading to guilt about the different choices that they could have made.


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The question put forth by Salecl asks if the freedom to control our own lives has become a hindrance to the greater good of society. Psychoanalysts have observed these changes in society and individuals and agree that it is detrimental to social change.  The self-criticism and guilt for one’s failure combined with the anxiety of overwhelming choices cause us to stop taking action.  We have become so wrapped up in our own problems that we do not have time to consider the choices that exist to further social change.

In a society focused on individual choices, Salecl warns that we need to reevaluate our priorities.  There is a lack of social change happening today and sociologists agree that it is related to the fear and anxiety created by overwhelming choices.

In order to be able to take the risks necessary to provoke social change, we need to live a more relaxed life and accept that our decisions don’t define us.  Only then can we begin to see beyond ourselves, making social change possible.


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