In United States politics, “choice” is a magic word, used to describe everything from charter schools to healthcare. But, as psychologists Hazel Rose Markus and Barry Schwartz write, it’s worth examining who values choice, and why.
Markus and Schwartz start by noting that, to college-educated Americans, it seems obvious that more choice leads to greater freedom and autonomy and, thus, wellbeing. The authors write that this “model of the self as independent and freely choosing” is so pervasive in middle-class U.S. culture that it’s invisible. And yet, from a global perspective, this reverence for choice and autonomy is unusual. Many cultures see people not primarily as inherently independent individuals but as interdependent selves who exist in relationship to others.
To reveal these cultural differences, Markus and Schwartz examine a series of psychology experiments. For example, in one study, researchers gave South Asian Indians and white Americans the chance to choose and evaluate a pen. In some cases, once a subject made their choice, the experimenter told them that they couldn’t have that pen after all. This “usurped choice” condition made no difference in the Indian participants’ responses, but it led white Americans to give a lower rating to the pen they ended up with.
“When queried about their responses, the European Americans seemed to experience a threat to their independent self,” the authors write. “Many felt that something—their right to express their personal preference—had been taken from them.”
In another study, seven-, eight-, and nine-year-old children in San Francisco were asked to solve word puzzles in one of three conditions. In one, researchers told the kids which kind of puzzle to do. In the second, the children were able to choose for themselves. And, in the third, they were given a puzzle chosen by their mothers. Children with East Asian immigrant parents solved the most puzzles and worked for the longest time when solving the puzzles chosen by their mothers. In contrast, the children of European American parents did best on puzzles they chose themselves. Many of them “balked at the very suggestion that their moms would know what kind of puzzle they should do or would like to do.”
These cultural differences also separated Americans of different class backgrounds. In a version of the “free pen” experiment, Americans with only a high school education were much less attached to making choices than their college-educated counterparts. Similarly, when asked how they would feel if a friend bought the same car they had, college-educated Americans reacted negatively. In contrast, a representative response from one working-class participant was, “Cool. Let’s start a car club!”
Markus and Schwartz argue that, even for these college-educated Americans who value choice, too much choice can paralyze and lead to dissatisfaction with whatever route a person ultimately chooses. Meanwhile, close relationships—which inevitably come with responsibilities and restraints on free choice—may be the most significant predictor of wellbeing.