In a recent post, I referred to "The Yogourt Rant." It's a somewhat boilerplate rant of mine that many people who know me have heard in one form or another.
A fellow named Barry Schwartz wrote a book called "The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less," which talks about this phenomenon. I haven't read Shwartz's book (yet), but he describes it well in his (20-minute) 2005 TEDTalk: [disclaimer: RG takes no responsibility for the incredible amounts of time you lose watching TED videos]
I had heard of this principle, probably even seen this very video, a few years ago, and it certainly resonates with me. Since then, I had forgotten the term "paradox of choice" and where I had heard it, but I had lived it and reconstructed it.
In the yogourt aisle.
The concept carries to many of my consumer-purchase experiences (for example, I refuse to specify a "chocolate" Frosty at Wendy's), but its purest form is when I'm buying yogourt.
When I go to the supermarket and I want to buy yogourt, it takes me forever.
For one, they're sorted by brand. I'm not interested in brands, I'm interested in flavour--raspberry. But because of the way the products are sorted, I have to first determine which type I want before I can decide on flavour.
This is harder than it looks. There are at least a dozen different types of yogourt on the shelf. Some types are the same brand, but different varieties--like, say, Danone Silhouette yogourt, Danone Creamy yogourt, and Danone Activia yogourt. (To further confuse you, "Danone" is known as "Dannon" in the U.S.)
Some are from the same company, but different "quality" brands, like President's Choice brand yogourt, the No Name brand yogourt, and the Blue Menu yogourt, all of which are from the same company. Often these brands may vary in quality and/or health factor, or at least, so say the packages.
Some are different brands' version of essentially the same product. Metaphorically speaking, the "Coke" and "Pepsi" yogourts, and the "Diet Coke" and "Diet Pepsi" ones. Similar price, similar product, similar taste, different brand.
Then there are the specialty brands, like the middle-eastern not-yogourt yogourt, goat's milk yogourt, and the organic yogourt with Omega 3 and "active bacteria cultures". I'm sure there's Soygurt out there, too, and other horrible things that go to extraordinary lengths to distract me from finding ordinary raspberry yogourt.
And without tasting them, how do you differentiate between these alternatives? Price? Perhaps, but is this one priced higher because it tastes better, or because it's healthier for you? Or simply because that brand costs more? Or do they push the health and social benefits of this one to make up for how much it offends the palette?
I know what I want when I shop for yogourt. I want raspberry yogourt. I want it in the large container, because the small ones are a waste of packaging. I don't want the fat-free stuff, because yogourt is supposed to have fat, and whatever additives and processing they used to make it fat-free is probably worse for you than the fat itself. I don't want the creamy stuff, but I don't mind unstirred yogourt. I don't want the organic stuff because all organic yogourt I've tried so far is disgusting. And I don't want the cheap stuff that has a dollar less taste for forty cents less price.
All of this is a very complicated way of saying I want simple raspberry yogourt.
So I stand in front of the yogourt section, staring bemusedly at the wall of containers in front of me. As Barry Schmidt put it, I'm paralyzed. I stand there for five whole minutes, scanning the brightly-illuminated array, processing the information that's pouring in, mentally arranging each group of flavours into brands, and categorizing each brand, scrutinizing each one until I find the one group of containers in which is the one yogourt that I had set out to find. On the home stretch, all that remains is to select the desired flavour from the row of six containers that I excruciatingly parsed from the wall of plastic jugs.
And they're out of raspberry.
Every few months, I empty my fridge of yogourt containers, some not even opened, all of them long expired. There are usually two or three different brands, though they're all raspberry. The tubs are bulging from the chemical and biological metamorphoses they're struggling desperately to contain; I don't want to know what's inside them. Probably a lot more than just "active bacteria cultures".
I don't know why I even bother buying yogourt. Do I even actually like it? Am I buying it as a quasi-healthy alternative to pudding? Because I tend to throw out more of it than I end up eating. Maybe I just think I want to eat it so that I have to confront my fear of the yogourt-buying process. Maybe I subconsciously like the stress of buying yogourt, like some form of mental dairy-bondage.
But whatever my reason for buying yogourt, it's clear that I don't eat nearly enough of it to know which kind I should buy when I shop for more.
Hence the rant.