Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Paralyzing Enchantment of Cosumeristic Choices

Americas pride themselves as living in the home of the free. Free to do what we want, when we want, where we want, even how we want. We value independence, options and the power of personal choice. However, we don’t always see the illusion this breads. Rarely do we see the paralyzing effects that abound in abundance of choices.

As such, many in our society can no longer distinguish the difference between what one “wants” and what one actually “needs”. Multiple studies indicate such internal delusion and how our society has become enchanted by the wizardry of advertising. Advertising professor James Twitchell says, “Ads are what we know about the world around us.” It is reported that on average we are bombarded with no less than three thousand ads a day. Twitchell exposes how thought we often think we are “too smart to be seduced by such ‘branding,’ but we aren’t.” These ads create our longings. These longings are granted a multitude of choices to appease. And, these myriad of choices enslave us under the spell of dissatisfaction.

For example, consider the following: At the average supermarket there can be found about 85 different varieties and brands of crackers. 285 varieties of cookies, with at least 21 different options of chocolate chip. 275 varieties of cereal, including 24 oatmeal options and 7 "Cheerios" options. Or what about the 15 different flavors of bottled water? Water! We could go on and on…

few years ago, Barry Schwartz wrote an interesting book entitled, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. His primary thesis presented and then backed up by everyday realities and research is this:

"When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. As the number of available choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture, the autonomy, control, and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negative escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.”

The mentality of consumption as laid out well by Vincent Miller in his book Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. Consumerism is rampant, yet so common that this sickness exists and spreads unseen, much like a cold transfers undetected in the shaking of the hands and passing of the glass. We all consume. Many become sick, but few of us can identify the cause. Unfortunately, many often unknowingly approach Church out of this same mindset, looking more to what they can “get out of it,” rather than how they can “be a part of it.”

It’s a challenge to reflect on how consumerism has intertwined itself with the fabric of my being. In many ways I’d like to think I’ve shed myself from the trappings. Yet, consumerism is kind of like driving your car that’s out-of-alignment, after awhile, you simply get used to driving that way and forget it is even an issue. I’m sure consumerism is affecting how I drive my life, I’m probably still unaware to the degree this misaligned value has been readjusting me.

That being said, while reading and reflecting I found my thoughts drifting to the things I do purchase and the values that reinforce my habits. Typically I’m pretty frugal, especially with cloths. The only new cloths I get are the those my wife buys and brings home to me. This is for two reasons. One, she’s a better fashion consultant than myself. And two, she is one heck of a deal hunter. Interestingly, my first question is always the same, regardless of how much I like the item, “How much was it.” I like nice looking cloths, I just don’t like spending much money on them. This is a noteworthy characteristic of mine, yet as I began to think about consumerism, I began to consider the person(s) this bargain may been exploiting and costing much. While I’ve cognitively known these injustices were a reality, I’ve just simply not really (personally) cared. My priorities have been more embedded in the saving money of my wages, with little concern for the wages (or lack thereof) another received from my savings. This is causing me to rethink through things a bit.

For anybody who doesn't have time or money to grab another book, below is a video of a talk Barry Schwartz gave at TED. In it he outlines how we can easily become enslaved by the multitude of choices we are granted. (Note: Barry uses a few words that may be offensive.)

No comments: