The Paradox Of Choice - The Reykjavik Grapevine

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The Paradox Of Choice

The Paradox Of Choice


Published July 5, 2013

Making this issue—the annual Best of Reykjavík issue—always reminds me of how remarkable it is that a city of our size has so many things going for it. Behind every ‘Best of’ winner lies a heated discussion about all of the other places and things that could—and in some people’s mind, should—take the title.

It was after one of these discussions—probably about hamburgers or pizza, people are really passionate about those for some reason—that I was reminded of a column that I wrote three years ago, after spending my first six months in Iceland. At the time, I was in a state of limbo—not sure whether to call the US or Iceland home—and often would ponder how disparate life was in these respective countries, one seemingly over stocked, the other one on the leaner side.
Rereading the column, I find I still agree with its premise. But I am also now assured—as you will too be after reading through our extensive “Best of” guide—that while Reykjavík is certainly no big American city and it sometimes seems downright silly to be awarding a best of to a place or thing with only one competitor—that there’s more to it than one might initially assume—judging by the toothpaste aisle alone.


Here’s some of what I wrote:

Despite Iceland’s recession, the standard of living here is still higher than it is in many parts of the world. And, well, having less of things doesn’t have to be negative at all. According to psychologist Barry Schwartz’s paradox of choice theory, more can actually be less and less can actually be more. It sounds like an oxymoron, but in terms of happiness, he argues that it’s not.
American ideals often equate opportunity, success and happiness with material things and importantly, the amount of choice we have in our lives. But, even in 2007, when Iceland had one of the highest standards of living in the world, how many different types of cereal could you choose from? Laundry detergent? Toothpaste?

Roughly speaking, the answer is: not very many. Relative to the US, the land of plenty, Iceland has never had an abundance of anything. Grocery stores don’t stock cookie dough ice cream. Fresh fruit and vegetables are unreliable. There is a limited (and overpriced) selection of beer.

What’s more, given even less choice in today’s recession, a study shows that kids in Iceland are happier than they were in Iceland’s 2007 flat screen and Range Rover consumer craze. What’s the deal with that? Barry Schwartz says less is more.

Imagine you are in the States and you run into your local store to grab some toothpaste. You pick one up, but then you can’t help noticing that there is an entire aisle full of different kinds of toothpaste. There’s Crest, Colgate, All-Natural, Aquafresh, Arm & Hammer, Oral B, Sensodyne, and Mentadent. There’s gel. There’s paste. There’s white. There’s green. There’s blue. There’s red. There’s white and green, and there’s white and blue. There’s baking soda, fluoride, special whitener, proven this, and proven that, and 2 for 5, buy 1 get 1 free, 5.99, 20% off…etc. etc. etc.

Paralysis sets in and you put your original choice back and pick up another one, and then you put that back and pick another one. You reach the end of the aisle with no idea whether the flashy New Colgate with extra powerful mint burst gel, proven to whiten teeth in less than 14 days, endorsed-by-Dr. Dennis-toothpaste is the right choice, but you grab it anyway.

When you try it out and analyze your purchase, you find it’s kind of foamy and you think maybe it tastes a little funny. You start doubting your choice because you can, and now think you should have stuck with one of the other ones you briefly picked up. This leaves you feeling a little unhappy.

Okay, maybe this is ridiculous. Maybe the average person doesn’t brood over their toothpaste purchases, but the point is that while more choice seems like it should make us happy, it paradoxically does just the opposite.
Now, imagine you are in Iceland and you run into your local store, pick up a tube of toothpaste and run out in less than two minutes. You are happy with your purchase because you wanted toothpaste and you now have toothpaste and it was a simple purchase because you trust Colgate over EuroShopper. You go on with your life and think about more important things. With less choice, you have fewer expectations and you don’t think about how the paste is too foamy and tastes funny.

I don’t know to what extent happiness is inversely correlated with size of toothpaste aisles. But, I do find a certain ease living in Iceland’s relative simplicity and I have felt that along with the plethora of choices in the United States also comes unnecessary complications and stress.

That said, it’s clear—judging by the passionate reader letters and answers to our call for votes on Facebook—that people think highly of a lot of places and things in Reykjavík. And although it sometimes seemed silly picking the best of something with only two possibilities, it’s also clear that fewer choices doesn’t mean that those two possibilities aren’t really great.

And with that I’m off to the land of plenty to stock up on toothpaste and all of those other great toiletries. See you in a couple issues from now!

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