Research shows that the average American makes about 35,000 decisions a day. These decisions range from the mundane – what color of shirt to wear – to the important – whether or not to get vaccinated.
âAmerica is called the republic of choice,â said Shilpa Madan, assistant professor of marketing at Pamplin College of Business. âJust go to the supermarket – there is a mind-boggling variety of cookies. “
Over the past three decades, the number of products in an average supermarket has grown from an average of nearly 9,000 to almost 47,000, according to the Food Marketing Institute, a trade group.
While having a variety of choices is widely seen as a positive consequence of economic development, what impact does this explosion of choice have on the individual psyche, and more so, on society as a whole?
In her recently published research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “The salience of choice fuels independence: Implications for self-perception, cognition, and behavior,” Madan illustrates how this salience of choice alone can have a range of powerful psychological effects. effects, including individual empowerment.
âJust thinking about making choices makes people more independent and more concerned with their personal interests,â she explained. âIt makes people more individualistic. “
Madan notes that these choices don’t have to be life-changing decisions to have an impact.
âThe actual choices might be trivial. Maybe you woke up this morning and chose to eat breakfast cereal instead of eggs, âshe said. âYou have chosen to like a few Instagram posts but ignore several others. This simple sense choice, whether you are in the driver’s seat, makes people feel independent and important.
âThey say we make choices that shape our environment, but most of us don’t realize how our choices shape us,â Madan said.
She continued, âThis self-focus is not necessarily bad. In fact, it can have a number of positive consequences for the individual. When people see themselves as independent, they are less likely to tolerate harassment or discrimination, more willing to have their voices heard, and more willing to negotiate better terms for themselves.
However, the rise of individualism can potentially have negative consequences on collective well-being.
âThe choice is good for the individual but could be bad for the society,â Madan explained. âAs people become more independent and more individualistic, more interested, it becomes more difficult to take collective action.
As Madan explained, we are potentially seeing these negative consequences now during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people increasingly choose to assert their independence and act in their own best interests, for example, by not wearing no masks or by not getting vaccinated. “The challenges facing the world right now – the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, discrimination, prejudice and inequality – require collective action, need people to work together for the greater good. “
While the United States of America was founded on the ideals of individualism, what about more collectivist societies? Does the importance of choice have the same impact on the peoples of nations where individualism is not so prolific?
According to his research, the impact is the same regardless of culture.
âIt reproduces itself across cultures,â Madan said. “From America, which is already very individualistic, to Singapore and India, both of which are collectivist countries.”
A glance down the aisle of a supermarket or at a Netflix home screen shows that our choices only keep growing. So what can we do to ensure that our focus on individualism does not come at the expense of the common good?
According to Madan, this requires further research.
âAs researchers, we try to find interventions for specific contexts where we can mitigate this negative effect of choice on collective well-being,â she said. âWhat kinds of interventions can we create to force people to wear a mask, get vaccinated, or take care of the environment? “
In the meantime, Madan reiterated that choices must be made deliberately and consciously. She referred to Virginia Tech’s motto to make sure we make the right decisions, both for ourselves and for our community.
“Virginia Tech’s motto, Ut Prosim (May I serve), talk about it. Make choices that are not only selfish but good for those around you.