The sheer amount of choice we have in modern society could be driving us to make decisions that run counter to the collective good.
New research has found even just recalling past times they got to make a choice inflates people’s sense of their own physical strength and influence.
“Just thinking about making choices makes people more independent and more concerned about their self-interests,” said Virginia Tech’s Shilpa Madan, whose new paper has just been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“It makes people more individualistic.”
Each day, the average American adult makes about 35,000 decisions, previous research has shown – anything from what time to get up, how much milk to pour on their cereal and how fast to walk to the bus, for example.
“The actual choices could be trivial,” said Madan. “Maybe you woke up this morning and chose to eat cereal for breakfast instead of egg. You chose to like a few posts on Instagram but ignore several others.
“This mere sense of choice, that you are in the driver’s seat, makes people feel that they are independent and important.”
And the richer the nation, the more choice that’s generally available.
“The increasing availability of choice is the unmistakable consequence of economic development all over the world,” the study reads.
“Growing consumerism, coupled with the rise of social media, now affords people the opportunity to make more choices than ever before, and research has begun to uncover the multitude of ways in which the act as well as the idea of choice shape the experience of the self.”
The new research suggests the more choice people have, particularly when they’re aware of it, makes them more individualistic.
“As the ideas and practices of choice become increasingly salient worldwide, they will likely fuel a host of unanticipated consequences, including a sense of self as independent, and so contribute to the rise of global individualism,” the study says.
While this makes individuals “less likely to tolerate harassment or discrimination, more willing to raise their voice, and more willing to negotiate better conditions for themselves”, Madan said, it’s not all good news.
“Choice is good for the individual but could be bad for society. As people become more independent and more individualistic, more self-interested, it becomes more difficult to take collective action.”
She cites the inability of highly individualistic societies, such as the US, to successfully tackle collective problems such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The US has a pathetic vaccination rate (68.4%) compared to many other wealthy nations with a more collective outlook, such as Singapore (90.1%).
People with more access to choice are also more likely to make their opinions heard, the research found, and if COVID-19 has taught us anything it’s that not all opinions are equally valid.
“The challenges the world is facing right now – the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, discrimination, bias, and inequity – need collective action, need people to work together for the greater good.”