The Failure of Choice

Trump Clinton Election 2016


America is a nation of choosers.

It’s a truth enshrined in the persistent dream of our country as a land of opportunity, and it’s one inscribed in the act of voting itself, the very engine of our democracy.

As I listen to the reactions of so many of my fellow Americans to the results of November 8th, I hear many of them wondering: Did choice fail us in this election?

As someone who has been studying choice and its consequences for my whole career, it’s a question I have been pondering myself.
What decades of research on how we choose as well as the pros and cons of choice have served to reveal is that when it comes to choice, we sometimes get more than we bargained for—perhaps especially when what we bargain for isn’t what we want.

With hindsight, we can trace some of the earliest clues of our trouble with choice to the Republican primary. Of course, when it comes to choosing our phones, shoes, or desserts, we love having more and more choices. But voters and politicians alike were a bit befuddled when confronted by 17 Republican candidates — as many as 10 on a stage all at once during the Primary debates.

Looking from face to face, who expected anyone but the experts to keep track of which candidate stands for what? Most of us, when confronted by so many options, have to channel all of our mental energy into just keeping those options straight, lest we forget one. And as a result, we become less concerned with the actual content of those options. So in the case of 17 candidates, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that bluster, braggadocio, and an orange sheen stood out. But is that what we’d expect people to choose?

Perhaps it should have been. Social science has shown us that the benefits of having more and more choices are limited, and moreover can impede good decision-making. My own research with Emir Kamenica showed that when confronted with eleven gambles with different odds, rather than with just three, people go for the sure bet—even if it promises less of a payoff. If we’re too distracted, tired, or lazy to do the math, the fact is most of us choose what we understand at a glance—and the loudest guy onstage touting the simplest message is both hard to miss and hard to forget. And easy to choose.

Even if we’re willing to accept that the outrageous number of Republican candidates gave Trump’s visibility an even sharper edge, we’re still left with the puzzle of how Trump beat Hillary. Here we had just two options—or, including Gary Johnson, three—and can’t point to any trouble posed by an overcrowded stage.

But here again we see the lessons of choice at work.

A number of studies by social scientists, including Simona Botti, Ann McGill, and myself, have shown that we have a much harder time choosing amongst options that we like than options we don’t. Does this sound familiar? The reason for this, simply put, is that when we’re choosing amongst desirable options, our job is fun: we get to identify the one that’s the best. We add up the pros and cons of each option and pick the one with the highest score.

But when we’re choosing amongst undesirable options, the entire process turns laborious. When faced with adding up all the cons, and having to decide which option we think is less worse, we get demotivated. So instead of comparing our choices, we direct our energy instead to resentment and frustration. We complain endlessly about the choices themselves.

And this complaining felt great while part of a chorus of complainers: notice how much solidarity there was amongst Americans and the media about how awful our choices were, with little attention given to the differences—albeit cons—between the those two options. So little attention was devoted to working out those differences that now we’re scratching our heads and asking to be reminded: what do we know about the first 100 days of the winner, again?

It’s human nature to hate choosing amongst the undesirable. Moreover, research shows that we’re even more likely to dislike making such choices when the options are so clearly different from one another. And it would have been hard to imagine candidates more different than Clinton and Trump.

So what did we expect from those voters who felt they were choosing between two bad options? They can either go do the work of determining which is less worse, or simply avoid making the choice altogether.

While the latter choice seems incomprehensible to many, it’s what many voters did—in this election, and in countless elections past. It’s possible to understand this choice as an attempt to save face: after all if we avoid making the choice, that absolves us of responsibility. If we don’t exercise our right to choose, then we can tell ourselves we are merely victims of destiny. This feels better than saying, “yes, I chose one of those awful things.”

At the root of the non-chooser’s dilemma is the fact that choice is deeply tied to our identity. None of us want to be identified with something we don’t like. Do any of us really know what we would choose, between a rock and a hard place? And would we want to be known as “the one who prefers the hard place to the rock”? We refuse to define ourselves by the choices we don’t want to make; instead we opt to wear “I choose not to choose” as a badge of honor.

After November 8th, this was what I heard, to my surprise, from so many people: they were proud to have abstained from voting. These were the Americans who spent their energy, during the days leading up to the choice, wanting the choice to go away; instead of investing their choosing energy in comparing and contrasting the candidates, they tried to wish the election out of existence.

But the election happened, and all of us—voters and non-voters alike—are now living with the results. When we begin to think of choice as an abstract thing, as an ideological marker, we blind ourselves to a choice’s practical consequences—even when my personal preferences concerning government policies on abortion, taxes, and healthcare, to name just a few things, should very much shape the ballot I cast.

Ultimately, I’m not trying to say what was the right or the wrong choice. The way choice failed us here was that first too many, and finally two unappealing options caused us to lose track of how, or perhaps even why we choose.

As a modern individual, I am free to choose and I am free not to choose. But each is equally complicit in the final outcome. And failing to reckon with that outcome looks less like an exercise of freedom than a rejection of freedom itself.

Sheena Iyengar