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Reducing Empathy Through Choice: How Too Much Choice Can Backfire

Choice is good. It’s always nice to have options. It makes us feel more in control; it supports our vision of ourselves as “deciders” in our own lives. But choice can also come with negative consequences.

Choice is good. It’s always nice to have options. It makes us feel more in control; it supports our vision of ourselves as “deciders” in our own lives. But choice can also come with negative consequences.

Too much choice? We might freeze up, or not make as good a decision as we would given fewer options. Too many options? Too many details to weigh in on? We might grow frustrated, throw in the towel, and walk away feeling less satisfied with whatever we end up deciding than we would have had we had fewer things to choose from. Anyone who has planned a wedding or another major event (or has bought a car or a house or made any other major purchase) can probably relate to the headache that can accompany seemingly endless, nonstop decisions.

And now, we can add one more thing to the list of the negatives of choice: it might undermine our empathy for others and our support for policies that benefit society at the expense of the individual.

Why would this be the case? When we activate the concept of choice, or make choices ourselves, we are more likely to think that individuals are responsible for their own actions, decisions, and life outcomes, irrespective of society as a whole. And such an outlook can create unintended shifts in attitude.

Choice can lessen support for public goods

In a series of studies, a group of psychologists from Columbia, Northwestern, and Stanford tested the effects of choice on a number of public policies. First, individuals watched a video. In the “choice” condition, they were instructed to press a key every time someone in the video made a choice, while in the control condition, they were just told to press the key whenever an object was touched for the first time. They were then asked questions on a number of issues. Here’s what the investigators found.

First, choice makes people less likely to support policies, such as affirmative action and environmental protection, that benefit others or society as a whole at the cost of individual freedom.  I’ve placed emphasis on the second part of that statement: it’s not that individuals become less society-friendly in general. It’s that they are less likely to choose society when that comes at a cost to the individual.

Choice can increase support for individual rights

On the flip side, choice makes people more likely to support public policies that limit government intervention in individual life choices, such as legalizing drugs or allowing adoption for individuals, not just families. So, people become more supportive of the individual’s right to choose policies that he feels are best for him.

Choice can increase victim blaming

Choice also led to an increase in “blaming the victim:” people in the choice condition were more likely to hold individuals responsible for poor life outcomes and were less likely to feel empathy toward the disadvantaged. Presumably, in entering a choice mindset, they generalized that mindset to other people and other circumstances. As a result, they were more likely to think that bad things were the result of bad individual choices and consequently, that the people who made these so-called bad choices were less deserving of sympathy.

Choice is still good; just be cautious

Choice is still a wonderful thing. As I’ve often pointed out, few things compare to the feeling of agency for generating well-being and a sense of accomplishment. What these studies illustrate is that choice may come with unintended consequences. Being aware of these possible repercussions is the first step toward avoiding them. As always, the main point is to be wary and to engage in a healthy discussion with your own attitudes and opinions. Don’t just mindlessly parrot the first thing that comes to mind, but pause for a moment to reflect on where it’s coming from and why it’s there.

The studies had one more intriguing set of findings: the results did not hold for a group of Indian participants. These participants showed neither a reduction in empathy, nor a corresponding shift in attitudes. Presumably, then, the effects of choice may be culture-specific; some cultures might already engage in the mindful processes that could be an essential first step to countering unintended attitudinal shifts.

And just because we have many choices now, it doesn’t mean that others do, too – or that we ourselves will, at another point in time and in another context.


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