White sneakers. That was all I needed. Preferably a running shoe that was dad-like, not too chunky and slightly retro with a split sole and no noticeable lug. I had a pretty solid image in mind of the shoes I wanted. And then, I started browsing the web to find them.
ASOS. Nike. New Balance. Net-a-Porter. Depop. eBay. Then, suddenly a new luxury retail site with a big sale. Then, suddenly a brand I had never heard of. Then, suddenly the knock-offs of this brand. By hour two, there were also the white sneaker ads appearing on the periphery of my screen. By the third and final hour, I was googling “10 min meditation for anxiety.” With 45 pairs of shoes sitting in a lineup of about 20 different tabs, I closed my laptop, defeated.
This experience appears to be consistent with a variety of psychological studies showing that having too many choices is likely to stop a consumer from making any choice at all. In a study conducted by researchers Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, consumers who were given 24 options of jam to purchase were 90% less likely to purchase any jam at all than customers who were only given six different options. Iyengar and Lepper proposed that customers become overwhelmed when presented with an excess of choices. With too much information to sift through, the task of deciding becomes taxing and individuals choose to avoid it entirely. I must have looked through about 5,000 pairs of shoes that day. If those percentages work proportionally, the odds of me accomplishing what I thought was a simple task were incredibly slim.
The more shoe options I found, the more variables I had to judge in order to differentiate between those options. I was suddenly considering customer reviews, environmental impacts, delivery dates and materials used. Not only did this require a lot of mental effort, but it also built up a lot of pressure. All of a sudden, I found myself on a mission to find the quintessential white sneaker, a sneaker that aligned with every ounce of my being. This plight is not uncommon and, in fact, is a very detrimental effect of having too wide a variety of choices.
Barry Schwartz, psychologist and author of “The Paradox of Choice,” believes that the growing number of choices we have today contributes to the exponentially growing rate of depression that has been observed in the past 50 years. He discusses how the more choices people have, the less likely they are to be satisfied with the choice they make. When we have more freedom at our fingertips, we have higher expectations for our selection. And if our choice does not match our heightened standards, the millions of unchosen possibilities continue to haunt us. In other words, even if people surmount the challenge of making a decision in the first place, they are then less likely to be satisfied with the choice they have made.
Generation Z, the group born between 1997 and 2015, has reported much higher rates of depression and suicide than any other generation documented. On top of making purchases in the infinite department store that is online shopping, Gen Zers are constantly provided the opportunity to contemplate and reconsider the kind of life they want to lead. Gen Zers comprise the first generation to have been immersed in social media throughout their adolescence. This is usually the time when we as human beings decide who we want to be and how we make our lives meaningful. Every single day, most Gen Zers are shown millions of different ways to do this. Just like a customer browsing jams, Gen Zers are being plagued with discouragement and dissatisfaction in their decisions.
The moment they wake up and open their phones, Gen Zers begin perusing through a display of choices on everything from outfits to career paths. With infinite options to sort through, how do we expect people to even get out of bed? And if Gen Zers do get out of bed, it’s far more likely that instead of enjoying their choices, they will be semi-preoccupied by their yearning for the unknown potential of alternative scenarios.
Freedom of choice puts much more responsibility on the decision-maker for improving their quality of their life. When our decisions inevitably fail to achieve the perfection that having more options encourages us to expect, we blame ourselves, further deepening our sense of dissatisfaction. As they did not scroll through upwards of a hundred other lives every day, I think older generations had a worldview that did not create as much space for this self-blame and regret. They didn’t wake up to see hundreds of different ways to start their mornings and thus couldn’t blame themselves if a cup of coffee and the morning newspaper didn’t take their breath away. Perhaps there was a greater sense of confidence that they were just doing the best they could under their personal circumstances. Social media and the internet give us a bird’s-eye view of all that life can offer. When circumstances feel boundless, our standards to achieve contentment with ourselves become boundless as well.
In her book, “How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right?” journalist Pandora Sykes discusses how social media also adds the pressure of having our choices become constantly monitored by huge groups of people determining our social and financial capital. When discussing trends in street fashion, she writes that “in our present day of hyper-visibility and self-surveillance … It is now better to look like someone else than to risk looking again like you’re failing modern life.” To me, this explains Gen Z’s obsession with social media influencers. Floundering in an ocean of choices and scarred by the increasingly impactful judgments on their life updates, people become desperate for something they can trust to guide or “influence” their decision-making. Gen Zers are being led to surrender the sense of autonomy one would think having greater choices would facilitate.
Whether in an Oscar Wilde quote or the occasional “real” paragraph caption on social media, we have all heard a million times that it is bad to compare ourselves to others on social media. However, I don’t think this is very effective advice for combatting the mental health crisis accompanying the digital age. I think that the decision fatigue Gen Zers face is a much more nuanced manifestation of comparison that is flying under people’s radar. It’s not as obvious as whining about wanting to be someone else. Those are negative thoughts that we can identify and curb somewhat easily. This is a more subconscious attack on our mental health. We are constantly window shopping around other people’s lives and exhausting ourselves as we try to deliberate which one perfectly suits us. I think the more fitting cliché Gen Zers need to hear is that “sometimes less is more.”
Kylie McCreary encourages you to strive for the simplicity of childhood, a time when you could literally eat the same bowl of cereal every day and be satisfied for years at a time.