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The Dark Side of Choice in America

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CHOICE

Around July 4 every year, Americans think a lot about what it means to be an American. A big part of our identity is the freedom of choice. The strong libertarian streak that runs through American politics reflects a don't-tread-on-me spirit that has been part of our national identity since Revolutionary War times.

This desire for choice is also reflected in the way we consume. We love outlet malls, big box retailers and warehouse clubs that are filled with a huge variety of products with many different variations of each. We prize the ability to control our own destiny, down to the level of which fabric softener to add to our laundry.

A paper in the June, 2011 issue of Psychological Science by Krishna Savani, Nicole Stephens and Hazel Markus suggests that Americans' affinity for choice comes with a social cost.

Because we believe that life is full of choices, when Americans focus on choice, we tend to be less generous to those people whose lives are not going well. It is as if our ability to make choices leads us to think that bad outcomes people suffer are largely a result of their own poor choices.

In one study, for example, people were made to think about choices by watching a video of a college student doing some everyday activities. Participants pressed a button every time the student in the video made a choice. A control group just pressed a button every time the student touched an object.

Later, people were asked questions about their support for affirmative action policies. People were less supportive of affirmative action when they focused on choices than when they did not. Another study showed that people were also less supportive of social policies like banning violent video games and reducing unhealthy foods in school lunches after thinking about choice than without thinking about choice.

Thinking about choice does not reduce people's support for any government policy, though. After focusing on choices, people were more supportive of policies like legalizing marijuana, which would reduce government's interference in people's lives.

Yet another study showed that people were more likely to blame the victim of an event like a heart attack, being physically abused or getting into a car accident after thinking about choice.

But this effect is not general to all people. In a final study, the authors tested college students in America and India. As before, some participants were led to think about choices, while others were not. Afterward, participants read about a poor 7-year-old boy from Mali. Americans who thought about choice were much less sympathetic and much less interested in helping the boy than those who did not think about choice. In contrast, the Indians were generally not affected by the manipulation of choice (and, if anything, tended to be more sympathetic toward the boy after thinking about choice than not).

Putting this all together, then, there is a dark side to the American cultural love of choice. When we are allowed to choose, it increases our own sense of agency. It makes us feel like we are in control of our lives. Of course, there are many factors that influence the course of our lives, and our own choices are only a part of that. Someone whose house was flooded after the recent spring rains was not in control of their of his or her destiny.

One reason why we help others is because we recognize that even people who make all the right choices may still suffer. Bad things do happen to good people.

But, the more that we, as Americans, focus on the bounty of choice around us, the less that we recognize that sometimes people need a little help to get back on their feet.

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