Saturday 1 September 2012
Choice as an Expression of Identity
Ask for a cup of coffee in Starbucks and you’ll face a seemingly infinite number of choices: tall, soy, java chip frappuccino, extra-hot, half-caf. Shop for jeans at the Gap and you’ll face endless walls of them: long, lean, drop-waist, distressed denim, short cuffed. Thirst for an orange juice — but would that be orange banana, extra-pulp, no pulp, vitamin C-infused?
The Western world is erupting with choices. In consumer goods, politics, and media the word “choice” is equated with freedom, in particular having the freedom to live the life you want, and the more choices you have, the more freedom. But this shouldn’t be surprising. Doesn’t freedom universally mean having the opportunity to choose what we want?
No, according to recent research. In many cultural contexts outside the US, freedom does not equal choice. Moreover, most Americans do not equate freedom with having more choice. This lack of contingency is particularly strong among the poor, immigrants and working classes. The poorer you are, the fewer choices you have and so other ideals are likely to express freedom better in that situation – freedom of speech, freedom from domination by regimes, tyrants, rules and regulations for example.
“We misunderstand behavior if we assume that the choice-freedom link is central to agency everywhere,” said Hazel Markus, Stanford University. “In psychology, we are still missing the culture boat.”
In her invited talk at the American Psychological Society’s 18th Annual Convention, “It’s a Free Country: Social Class, Agency and Choice,” Markus presented evidence supporting the idea that choice is not the definition of freedom for most Americans. Nor is it any sort of universal definition.
The culture boat she speaks of is tied to different models of agency, which are implicit guides of how to be that guide action. Many psychologists assume middle class America follows a “disjoint model of agency.” This model includes ideas such as: “I’m independent, free to choose, and in control” and the many everyday practices like getting a cup of coffee that reflect and promote these ideas about how to be an appropriate person. In this way expression of choice in Starbuck’s or Gap comes to reinforce middle-class notions of our identites as autonomous, independent persons.
In psychology, this model is so pervasive that Markus wants to remind everyone that it has no base in biology or evolution, but rather is culture-specific.
“We look out there, and think we are seeing the way human nature is,” she says, “but in fact in other contexts, other ideas of agency are prevalent.”
We can see that these findings can seriously distort the way those who make a living out of influencing choices of products and services can easily come to believe that these same choices are of much more importance to customers than they really are. Most people are simply trying to get by without too many irrelevant choices and decisions. They are bringing up their children, trying to advance or simply stay in work, attempting to better their lot not by the jeans they wear or the coffee they drink, but by looking out for opportunities and chances to make things better…as are you and I.
Posted by roy at 10:32 am. No comments
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