Chain of Causation

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This post challenges the contention of Barry Schwartz that too many choices lead to depression and even suicide.  What do you think?

I recently watched a TED presentation by Barry Schwartz. The following is from an internet summary: “ Barry Schwartz tackles one of the great mysteries of modern life: Why is it that societies of great abundance — where individuals are offered more freedom and choice (personal, professional, material) than ever before — are now witnessing a near-epidemic of depression? Conventional wisdom tells us that greater choice is for the greater good, but Schwartz argues the opposite: He makes a .. case that the abundance of choice in today’s western world is actually making us miserable. Infinite choice is paralyzing, Schwartz argues, and exhausting to the human psyche. It leads us to set unreasonably high expectations, question our choices before we even make them and blame our failures entirely on ourselves. His relatable examples, from consumer products (jeans, TVs, salad dressings) to lifestyle choices (where to live, what job to take, who and when to marry), underscore this central point: Too much choice undermines happiness.”

ROOT CAUSE / FIVE WHYS & THEREFORE TEST.

I agree that having more choices does not necessarily lead to happiness. But, I think that is not the cause of unhappiness. Feeling befuddled by all the choices is easily remedied, if that really is the cause. The underlying mechanism is likely the inability to think clearly in the face of important choices. Some choices require more sophisticated analysis than people are able to do “naturally”, that is without learning how to make choices. To explore the relationship between critical thinking and happiness read our article about the book Stumbling Upon Happiness (by Dan Gilbert), “Thinking Critically & Happiness” in the articles section of our website.

Imagine this internal dialogue (sarcasm ahead)

Oh NO!  I really regret choosing that red sweater – I simply must kill myself.  Yes, that would work.  Bye, bye!” 

“But oh wait!!  There are so many ways to kill myself, what if I fail to pick the very best way?  Life is cruel! Now I’m too depressed to kill myself.” 

And we are really supposed to think the cause of the higher suicide rates in the more developed countries is too many choices?  Wouldn’t it be more depressing to feel trapped with little or no choice?

Well, Barry lays out a chain of causation in his argument.  So, let’s subject it to the “therefore test“.

“Freedom and abundance” therefore
“many, many choices” therefore
“paralysis” therefore
“more regret” therefore
“more depression and suicide “.

The first weak link for me is the jump from “many choices” therefore “paralysis.” There are millions of people who face a large number of choices everyday and are carefree and happy.  What is the real cause of paralysis?  One potential cause is conflicting objectives – like Charley Brown doing the “On the one hand … and on the other hand” routine in the comic strips.  Or, consider the challenge of a monkey with a hand grasping a treat, caught in a coconut.  Letting go is one choice but that means giving up the treat.  Not letting go keeps the hand stuck in the coconut.  The old saying is, “You can have anything you want.  You just can’t have everything you want.”  The good news is there are simple strategies for dealing with a large number of alternatives and conflicting objectives.  For example, critical thinking decision tools.

Another weak link is the jump from “regret” therefore “depression/suicide.” Surely regret does NOT itself result in “suicide” or even “depression”!

Maybe the author might look into whether some suicide candidates lack a solid sense of purpose in their lives, a clear elevating goal, beyond the search for the next consumer item or selfie?  Maybe some people feel depressed having lost their purpose, their family, their career?  Of course there are bio-chemical issues mixed into this and psychology can affect biology.  The social pressure to be outraged at others vs. adopting the attitude of live and let live, can’t help psychologically, I suspect.  In any case, the real cause of the depression needs to be identified and addressed for each victim and I suspect it is never related to a very long list of choices. Perhaps they are searching for fulfillment in the wrong places.  There is no cheese there, as they say. Or they have a core distress pattern from their childhood creating an unmet emotional need.

It might be instructive to know that one best selling book by Pastor Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Life) sold 30 million copies by 2007,  It begins with this sentence, “It’s not about you!” not exactly a Facebook mantra!  It was simultaneously on four major best-seller lists (incl. 114 weeks on the NY Times’ list).  I don’t trivialize depression, and I certainly do not think depression is caused by too many consumer choices!

I’d like to know how different generations compare about this and whether different causes fit different generations?  For example, just maybe the current generation’s fondness for self-promotion on social media (i.e. Facebook) is the wrong place to fill the hole or find that missing piece Shel Silverstein wrote about. I suspect that seeking to be thought of as being cool puts pressure on choices.  Picking the jeans others will think are the coolest, is more challenging than picking a pair of jeans you personally like.  So, instead of seeking to be part of the in-crowd, maybe the cheese we all hunger for can be found in helping others – admittedly a more spiritual than materialistic approach? Maybe we seek a life of meaning beyond merely satisfying our own ego fetishes?

Thought experiment.  As critical thinking practitioners, we develop potential causes by finding differences between problem and non-problem areas.  I am sure there are other differences between developed vs. less developed countries besides number of consumer choices.  What are they and could one or more help explain the phenomenon?

If we wished to evaluate spiritual causes of increasing suicide rates in the developed world here’s what would be good to know to begin that analysis:  Are there differences in suicides between so-called Cultural Jews and Religious Jews on this problem?  This is a good comparison because it may hold the fellowship aspect within closely-knit groups relatively constant.   Are there differences between deeply religious people of any faith and comparable secular people? Continuing in this vain, we ask are countries with higher percentages of secular people more or less prone to depression and suicide?  Are suicides more or less common among those that work for charitable or community causes?   Are suicides associated with traumatic events vs. just living same ole same ole?  Has secularization kept pace with the explosion of consumer choices?  Does depression cause bio-chemical changes or vice-versa?  The timing of this phenomenon would be of particular interest if we could do some mapping of trends.  What trend mirrors the suicide rate increases?

We are not experts in any of this except in knowing how to perform a proper evaluation by setting up comparisons for developing  likely causes. On the face of it the “too many consumer options” is not a likely cause, in our opinion.  If it were, one fix might be to limit choices in all areas to just government approved options.  Now that IS depressing.

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