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Shut up about the jam, already

One Catherine Bennet has yet another article in the Guardian about that jam experiment. Hers is called Since when was giving people a choice a good idea?

It is not merely the chorus from anguished parents (and patients), that they cannot exercise choice where there is no spare capacity, that might give a rational education secretary pause, but a growing body of research indicating that too much choice is overwhelming. Gove will know of the much cited experiment with jam, by the US academic Sheena Iyengar, which found consumers were more than six times more likely to buy a pot if they had to choose from six varieties, rather than 24. If uncertainty about preserves is a problem one can probably live with, or possibly enjoy, a similar helplessness in the face of big, irreversible decisions is, to judge by a new study, State of Confusion by Professor Harriet Bradley of Bristol University, something that should worry a government that advertises choice as an unmitigated good.

Mr Eugenides says,

So, just to recap: a woman who used to live with a lord in a 365-room mansion, now in a household with a combined income of some quarter of a million pounds a year, has read a PR puff commissioned and paid for to advertise a price comparison website, and uses this as evidence that we should all just take what we’re given by the state and shut up.

Ironically, price comparison websites are themselves a market mechanism for making choice easier.

I say, to Catherine Bennett and the next fifteen journalists to go into an ecstasy of servility when pondering this little demonstration that some people find shopping boring, shut up about the jam already. It’s jam. The process of choosing it has no deeper meaning. Unless one is a connoisseur of jam, in which case one probably finds choosing between 24 varieties a pleasing experience, as people usually do when shopping for something that interests them.

Look at it this way, Ms Bennett. You have twice to my knowledge chosen a man as mate and helpmeet. Was making that choice from all the prospective partners you could have had ever stressful? There is some literature – like about half of it – to suggest that some people find it so. Some people regret their choice. The evidence suggests that you have at least once. Can we assume that if by any sad chance you find yourself seeking a man again you are willing to let a civil servant choose for you?

21 comments to Shut up about the jam, already

  • Simon Cooke

    Of course, the jam experiment was conducted without the benefit of a brand so is a load of old toss. In the real world we use brands as surrogates for quality – something we do pretty well with schools! If Eton opened up a state school in East London the brand alone would get it full.

  • I don’t think her mistake is using the jam example (I have no knowledge of the validity of the jam experiment, but there are enough similar experiments to have convinced me that there is an effect related to abundance of choice). Her mistake is extending it to schools and hospitals. For example, there are something like 25,000 schools in the UK. That is, according to Bennett, so much choice as to be overwhelming. Yet of those 25,000 only 5 are even vaguely realistic for my transport situation, and of those I can dismiss 2 as being useless, and 1 because it’s a public school beyond my means. That leaves me with a choice of 2. I’m not always the most decisive guy, but honestly I think I’m up to the challenge of choosing between 2 options.

  • pete

    It’s just the little people who shouldn’t have choice.

    Guardian News and Media offers private healthcare as an employee benefit, presumably so they can choose between private care and the NHS.

    http://www.gnmcareers.co.uk/fe/tpl_GuardianNews01.asp?s=XaJdLXnSzKEpYeL&key=28506671&c=346072465834&pagestamp=sewugyojfjtrolbpyh

  • Laird

    “Can we assume that if by any sad chance you find yourself seeking a man again you are willing to let a civil servant choose for you?”

    Brilliant! :-)

  • virgil xenophon

    For a LOL hilarious essay on the paralyzing dilemma of choice (concerning multiple brands of toothpaste) visit “The Hot Librarian” @

    http://thehotlibrarian.blogspot.com/2008_09_01_archive.html

  • Alsadius

    Just wanted to say, “like about half of it” was brilliant.

  • Brian, follower of Deornoth

    Perhaps Catherine Bennet should not be allowed to choose the next bloke to give her a seeing to. After all, that man will know better than she does what is good for her, because he says so.

  • Dishman

    Why should a single man be chosen for her? It’s clear that she is one of those rich elitist snobs who needs to be taxed more.

    Let The State choose which her men, and make the appropriate arrangements for her.

  • Stonyground

    I don’t get it. I am overwhelmed by having too much choice and being unable to make a decision so I shut my eyes and pick a pot of jam at random, that gives the effect of not having a choice because I end up with a choice of one type of jam provided by luck.

    As for letting a civil servant choose your spouse, that was a gem. For myself, I chose a civil servant for a spouse.

  • I clicked the first link being certain that Natalie was paraphrasing the title of the article and wanted to see what the real title was. Alas…

    According to that former occupant of 365 rooms, the jam experiment resulted in people being so overwhelmed by choice that they ended up not buying any jam at all. Does this mean that people who are similarly overwhelmed by choice of schools will forgo education for their kids altogether? Or that in the case of healthcare, they might just choose to remain sick rather than choose from too many physicians or hospitals?

  • RAB

    Well I must admit, the first time I walked into an American Ice Cream Parlour, in the mid 70s, I was so overwhelmed with the amount of choice I had compared to back home in Blighty, I came out with a plain old vanilla cone. But at least I came out with something eh?
    The next time I went in I came out with Pistachio flavour!

    The woman is obviously a fuckwit. The most important and expensive choice any of us ever make is where we live. I am not going to have a bloody bureaucrat tell me where I should and shouldn’t live, and what size and style of house I can have, are you?

    Making choices about schools and doctors are easy friggin peasy! If the school has a crap reputation you try for a better one, If your doctor is an obvious idiot (I had a hearing problem a while back and the moron I consulted asked me if I had tried holding my nose and blowing really really hard!) then you move on to the next one on the list.

    But you ladies, being multi taskers are much better at this choice thing arn’t you? ;-)

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1301827/For-size-How-women-try-21-000-items-clothing-lifetime–buy-half.html

  • JadedLibertarian

    Why is declining to chose any jam at all a bad thing?

    Or is that like garlic and holy water to statist vampires: “Ohhh no, you can’t opt out. Just chose something dammit!!”

  • David Crawford

    It’s because of writers like Catherine Bennet that I go to the Guardian website every single day. The pure, eye-rolling, breath-taking idiocy on view there is amazing.

  • SporkLift Driver

    There’s been plenty of times I’ve walked away and made my purchase elsewhere because I didn’t like any of the available choices, I took my business elsewhere. A couple of times I’ve walked away because there were too many choices and I didn’t know enough to pick the best one for myself, so I went home and went online and researched the matter, then I went back and made the right purchase.

    Eliminating some of the worse choices might help, anyone want to trust a government employee to do that?

  • Chuckles

    Whenever ‘choice’ is, or ‘choices’ are presented in this context, it is usually to severely limit choice or to ensure that the lumpenproles make the ‘right’ choice. Having a true variety of options seldom enters into it.

    ‘Would you like to be shot at dawn or shot at midday?’ comes to mind.

  • Little Black Sambo

    You don’t seem to know what “already” means.

  • Little Black Sambo,
    Google “shut up about the * already”.
    Yiddish-influenced New York slang.

  • guy herbert

    Puzzled by the problem Bennett has with people ‘less likely to buy if they have more choice.’ Isn’t she against wicked consumerism and capitalism? If this were true generally, it would necessarily imply the collapse of both.

    Even if it is true ofr jam, but only true for jam, aren’t columnists who know what is good for the poor usually against the consumption of cheap high-sugar foods?

  • JSchuler

    Well, if anyone really believes this, then I have good news for them: They can open up a supermarket that has, at most, two different kinds of anything. They’ll make a mint and drive all those other supermarkets that have an entire aisle devoted to cereal out of business.

  • Sunfish

    Well, if anyone really believes this, then I have good news for them: They can open up a supermarket that has, at most, two different kinds of anything. They’ll make a mint and drive all those other supermarkets that have an entire aisle devoted to cereal out of business.

    We already have six supermarkets to choose from. We won’t be able to choose the limited-choices supermarket if we already can’t choose between three or four brands of raspberry jam.

  • Paul Marks

    The response for Mr Eugenides is very good.

    Still at least a Guardian person is admitting they are an enemy of freedom – normally they try and hide that fact.

    As for so many varieties confusing a customer.

    Retailers know that – and offer a few varieties (not hundreds of different sorts of the same product).

    And if you dislike the alternatives one retailer offers – then go to a different retailer.

    Still nice (unintentional) point about government “advertising”.

    Governments should not say “choice is good” OR that it is not good – governments are not there to express such opinions. Let alone to try and run vital parts of civil society (such as health and education) themselves.

    And he who pays, or rather controls the money that pays, for something, in the end controls it.