A ‘lidl’ choice is great, but not too much

How choice can make you miserable, especially late at night

We’re happy because we don’t have to make decisions

So, what’s good today?

I can get a little over-excited when I’m in the ‘Sauces and Oils’ aisle at Waitrose in Holloway Road, and not only because I once spotted Kathy Burke there.  So much choice, and the jars look so yummy.  I can imagine the sophisticated dinner parties in which I might make these condiments available to guests (as ingredients, I point out, I’m not putting jars on the table).

But these days, the Lidl in Finsbury Park is where I get my supermarket kicks. The choice is meagre, but the quality is high.  Which Magazine has been gushing about Lidl’s mayonnaise, champagne, and Christmas pudding, and readers have ranked it 3rd most delightful supermarket (behind Waitrose, as it happens, and Aldi). Part of the appeal of Lidl is the ease of buying, and the lack of mental energy expended thinking about dinner parties that’ll never happen (and nonsense about jars on tables).

You want baked beans?  There’s ONE option. You want stock cubes other than Oxo? Get lost.

And that is how I like it.  The lack of choice is liberating because it frees you from the burden of making decisions.

The idea that too much choice can make you miserable has been kicking around for a while now.

In a recent profile of President Obama by the great Michael Lewis he describes how he tries to pare down choices except when it matters:

You need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

(Routinize…!)  The benefit of narrowing choices may explain why elderly people can be happier than the young and why Christians are often happier than agnostics… a settled decision or reduced options can bring peace of mind.

Barry Schwartz is one of the voices who has unpicked the problem of too much choice: ‘The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option you chose’’.  (If you have 19 minutes, do watch  his excellent presentation, and you may enjoy Schwartz’s shocking choice of clothes).

So too much choice tires you out, and leaves you dissatisfied with the choice you’ve made… and any number of studies in behavioural economics have found that shoppers spend less when they are given too many options.  Choice is considered one of the great triumphs of modern capitalism, and yet we may be suffering from too much.

What’s this got to do with television?

Brain ache… too much choice at 11pm.
(Ashley Bickerton The Patron)

It’s 11 o’clock, and your partner has gone to bed, leaving you with the remote control and a free TV.  It sounds perfect, does it not: freedom to choose and a wide open array of options.  But it isn’t is it.  You cast around for something a little spiky, before settling for a repeat on Dave, or the news.  You feel unhappy with your choice, even if you quite enjoy it.  You sense that you’ve missed a better option.

It’s not a happy situation.

Earlier in the evening, TV viewers cope with choice by pooling their decisions.  When you watch together you are compromising in a way that makes it harder to keep changing the channel.  And once you have a favourite programme, or merely settled for an easy option it feels easier.

And one hears all the time about the exciting future when TV programme will entirely chosen by viewers from menus, rather than the tyranny of the schedule. If I haven’t made it clearer elsewhere, I find this sort of talk very annoying!  Wide open choice is not a path to happiness if it complicates the issue unnecessarily.

One late night option…

One peculiarity with TV scheduling is that while programmes in daytime are scheduled all year round (or nearly), the late evening programmes are scheduled like the mid evening. Programmes are different each night, and scheduled in short bursts.  At 11pm audiences may be in a mood to wander, but a smart broadcaster should be helping the core evening viewer to (ahem) ‘routinize’ their options.  If viewers are already tired, do they really want to have to go looking for something good to watch?

When I worked at ITV we looked at 11pm. What sort of programme would appeal at this time? Some viewers seemed genuinely annoyed that the big broadcasters who were so reliable earlier in the evening, opted out later on.  They felt let down. And the impression I got was that many viewers didn’t really mind what was shown, as long as it provided some certainty.

There’s also a sense that in the later evening channels are better off scheduling ‘something of the night’ for a younger audience. Because young people like to stay up. It’s as if the rest of the day is compromised by the preponderance of the elderly and therefore aimed at the mainstream, but that late night should be different. But young people are often more miserable in life because of their peripatetic lifestyle and restless need to explore, and in fact the audience at 11pm or at midnight is almost as old as it is at every other time of day. There’s a real gap in the market for a reliable, mainstream option late at night.

So, what to put on?  It almost doesn’t matter what it was.  A chat-show? Perhaps.  A nightly drama?  Perhaps not.  A magazine show, like This Morning, but at night? Maybe.  Something with fixed elements, but the capacity to surprise or shock? Probably. Viewers want an easy option, which saves them from having to think too hard about it.

There’s no question that greater choice in TV has given us some wonderful things, and helped extend the range of options in a wonderful way. But there are times when we’d all be better off if it were a little more like Lidl.








Choice can give a sense of the possibilities, but spoil things too


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