Why give people a choice?

This is my question for the week: what is the benefit of allowing people to choose? As a parent, you start with this early: would you like to wear the red shirt or the blue one? There are two benefits to giving a small child a choice: one is that you hope it teaches the child how to make choices and the other is that it channels attention (which is the opposite of choice).

So. . . sometimes we give choice to take away choice. When we say "the red shirt or the blue one?" we take away all the other shirts - and the possiblity of going naked -- and the chance to talk about a new toy or an old issue. In fact, we take everything away - for that moment - except the two shirts. It sounds rather draconian, doesn't it? Parents trying to get a three year old out of the house on schedule are often willing to resort to desperate measures. Including taking away the choice to stay put.

And sometimes we give choice to prepare for future choices which we know will inevitably be offered. That's true, and yet it leads only to the question: "why do we need choices? wouldn't it be better if the optimal conditions were set and we stepped into them?"

I am often irritated by the owners of pet food shops who look at me and say "you're not going to give that to your dog, are you?" If it's good enough for them to put on their shelves, I expect them to be willing to sell it. Otherwise, I wonder why it is there. To give me a choice to make a mistake? To cover them in case they can't actually sell me their higher-end, higher-margin foods? I'm equally annoyed when they plunk me in front of three different kinds of food with indecipherable ingredients and expect me to make a choice. How can I choose in the absence of any meaningful information?

Whether or not you habitually give other people choices, it's worth contemplating. Under what conditions is choice a good thing? What are the alternatives?


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