On the Nature of Choice: My Aunt April

My life is about to change in a number of substantial ways, the outcome of which I cannot clearly foresee. Thus, I've been meditating at some length on choice, not the choices with which I am now faced so much as on the very substance of choice itself. While thinking on this, I realized that, when I first moved to the United States, the concept of a grocery store was new to me. (This connects, I promise).

Grocery stores, as we understand them, did not exist in rural England in the early nineteen-eighties. There were neighborhood markets, butchers, dairies, fishmongers, of course. Every town of any size had a "Grocery" but it was a small store that sold vegetables, canned goods and perhaps ice cream. The one in our town was scarcely larger than my current apartment and carried no more than two kinds of anything. It was certainly not one of the sprawling, fluorescent, warehouses that we find in US suburbs, carrying perhaps a half-million individual products stacked from floor to highest reach with dozens of varieties of anything one cares to eat plus housewares, paper goods, magazines and patio furniture. We still had a milk man, after all.

I remember distinctly when my Aunt April first came to visit us a year or so after we moved to America. She'd never conceived of such a place. She stood in the aisle of the Piggly Wiggly for twenty minutes, mouth agape, unable to comprehend the selection of salad dressing.

During my Aunt's life, English salad was livened up with one of only three things. First was white vinegar, the same kind one uses to clean a drip coffee maker. After that was Branston Pickle, a concoction of diced vegetables, spices and brown sludge that resembles a hybrid of sweet pickle relish, chunky salsa and week old ratatouille.* Finally, we had "salad cream" which is a bit like watered down Miracle Whip. I presume we only bothered to have three salad toppings because they were all so terrible that we didn't want to subject ourselves to any more such horrors.

To anyone who's gone shopping in the US in the last few decades, this is obviously not the case here. American salad dressing boggled her and not just because she presumed it was all terrible and thus had trouble imagining the depths of America's masochism. She was boggled because there were simply so many possibilities. Vinegar dressings, oil dressings, cream dressings, fat free, extra-chunky, dozens of varieties and brands and sizes of each. That's not even counting extras like croutons, sunflower seeds or synthetic bacon. My aunt, who had only ever known three such possibilities was in decision overload. She simply couldn't handle that many options.

Remember also that this was in 1985 when the salad dressing aisle was only a few feet long and offered only twenty or so choices.

I tried to count the options at the Publix across the street and I gave up at 175 when I realized that I hadn't made a dent. I paced the length of the shelves and found them to be just shy of fifty feet long, whilst taking up both sides of the aisle. That means there was enough salad dressing in my neighborhood grocery store to fill a city bus.

After more than a quarter hour staring vacant-eyed at the myriad of condiments, absolutely unprepared for the dearth of options that so often manifest in the capitalist temples of middle-class America, Aunt April simply decided that we'd skip the salad altogether.

Herein lies the problem of choosing; it's not, contrary to popular understanding, simply a matter of weighing preferences, of evaluating pros an cons. Choosing from any substantial number of options requires understanding of the items, their potential properties and knowing your preferences about them. Without these things choice becomes impossible.

More options often do not make for better decisions and, faced with a choice of any difficulty, most people will chose not to chose at all.

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Anonymous said...

I like my salad undressed.....

AWW said...

I've always wondered if the popularity of such excessive selections has more to do with our desire to feel individual even while purchasing the same corn syrup based condiment products.

Tom Harper said...

Now I finally know what salad cream is. I remember a Fawlty Towers episode where some bratty kid kept on ranting about wanting salad cream, and I had no idea what he was talking about.

renalfailure said...

If there's too many options I freeze up like a Windows program. Sometimes I think my life is just waiting for someone to hit Ctrl-Alt-Delete so I can get to the task manager.