Option Fatigue

-- Sara Moulton is a highly decorated veteran of the culinary world. After attending the CIA, she worked in restaurants, has been the host of four different cooking shows, served as Executive Chef for Gourmet Magazine for twenty-three years until its closing, and has published her own cookbooks. saramoulton.com

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
Christmas can be a difficult time for people with souls.

There's the slushy grind of family, buying presents, parties and travel — all of which are supposed to be joyous. And the moral pressure of "it is better to give than receive" when many of us small and petty souls secretly feel we really would like to receive a whole lot more and give a little bit less.

But mostly there are too many choices.

The absurd and much-lampooned epitome of option overload is Merry Christmas versus Happy Holidays. What are you supposed to say to the lady at the dry cleaner — Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays? And on your card? Will you target the audience? What if you make a mistake? How about Hanukah, Kwanza and Lochnekbar, the Druid celebration of overcoming gum disease? This is another moral-aesthetic-lifestyle-identity-social-etiquette decision you have to make and you have to make it right now, before you go out again: are you a Merry Christmas person or a Happy Holidays person?

Option fatigue is a ubiquitous yet enormously under-diagnosed social disease. The CVS next door to my office sells 95 different kinds of shampoo. Nine-five. There are at least that many conditioners. This is modern civilization: grapefruit-rosemary shampoo for people with dry to moderately dry, thin hair.

The raw volume of choices is daunting — from the most trivial choice of a shampoo to the most important decisions about health insurance. But there are more pressures, pressures to choose The Best, or The Coolest or The Cheapest.

Once upon a time there was no such thing as, say, the best oven. Now swells and swellettes across our land of aesthetic-status-seeker agonize (and no, that is not too strong a word) over whether to buy a Viking, Vulcan, Garland, Gaggenaeu, Miele, Thermador, Wolf or Aga stove. And most of them can't cook. Somewhere in Marin County there is a venture capitalist's wife or husband taking a Xanax to cope with this challenging lifestyle selection. Or maybe a Valium, Antivan or BuSpar. Possibly a vodka martini, but with Grey Goose, Smirnoff, Stolichnaya, Absolut, Skyy, Belvedere, Finlandia or Ketel One.

The 1991 Steve Martin movie "LA Story" had a great scene about boutique coffee:

Guy with neck-support: I'll have a decaf coffee.

Trudi: I'll have a decaf espresso.

Movie critic: I'll have a double decaf cappuccino.

Policeman: Give me decaffeinated coffee ice cream.

Harris (Steve Martin): I'll have a half-double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon.


Today, that caricature doesn't even meet reality. I'd like a no-foam tall decaf latte with one-percent milk and organic, fair-trade beans. Every restaurant must tell you every ingredient in every dish.

The half life of choice growth has doubled, or something like that. Anyway, there's way too much stuff to choose from.

The other day I ordered half dozen oysters. Did I want Prince Edward Island, Pigeon Point, Ham-Hama, Belon, Hog Island, Malpeque, Sinku, Totten Island or Kumamoto? What's the difference I asked (I as in Idiot). Well. The vocabulary this guy had to describe oysters made a fancy wine steward seem like a garbage man. One kind had a plump, firm meat with a sweet flavor and a mild, fruity finish, another was deep cupped, plump and sweet and a third had the typical robust and strong salt character, with a dry and metallic aftertaste. I had a pain in my oysters.

In the olden days, we featherless bipeds could not choose how we talked because we could not hear how other groups of featherless bipeds talked. Radio and television and airplanes changed that. Now you can, like, you know, totally change the way you talk which is sooooo awesome. Maximizing interface modes is optimal for breaking firewalls in a cross-platform space with variant legacy vertical silos and no long tail footprint. 'Nuf sed, dawg.

Last year, a scholar named Barry Schwartz wrote a great book about this (that I am stealing from) called "The Paradox of Choice." "As the number of choices grows further," he writes, "the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize."

Schwartz's theory, sort of, is that choice overload will make us all depressed and then dead.

Of course, the great engine of commerce is wholly dedicated to creating more and more and then more choice, and choice in micro-areas that are beyond my capacity for caricature. It is un-American not to want more choice. And then there's the pressure of The Best. The Sharper Image catalogue has had a lot to do with this, I think. 'Get the best nostril hair trimmer ever made, with German engineering, and we'll throw in the finest wooden block sold in the North America, cut from the rare Surinamese Angst tree, of which only 46 remain extant.'

There's a Fedex package on my desk. Inside is a cell phone that can send and receive text messages, take pictures and play video— even video from CBSNews.com. It can probably eat oysters and buy shampoo for my hair type (gray) online. I look at this box with fear and loathing.


I will not open it until after the holidays. I mean, Christmas...



Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

E-mail questions, comments, complaints, arguments and ideas to
Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones, sometimes in edited form.

By Dick Meyer
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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