The Illusion of Choice


Imagine you’re in a boarding house, on a street full of boarding houses. Meals are served three times a day at regular intervals, and you are given some choices in the food you are served. You are told by the staff that your food choices will influence what they serve in the future. This seems like a good deal, because it is your understanding that in some of the other boarding houses along the street the roomers have little or no choice at meals, and in a few of the boarding houses there is not enough of the food they do offer.

The roomers sit down for the first meal served since you have found yourself in the boarding house, and it appears there is sufficient variety of food on the table and plenty of it for everyone. There are serving plates holding the food you requested, though not very much of it. That’s alright because you note no one else at the table is interested in your requested dishes, helping themselves instead with enthusiasm to one or the other of only two courses, each of which is served in such quantity as to take up the majority of the space on the dining table.

At the next meal, you find again that the staff has provided the dishes you requested, but in even smaller quantity. Meanwhile the other roomers appear to have more than enough of the two courses that they dig into with great gusto. After the meal, you consult with one of the staff members, who informs you that they will indeed continue to supply your requested foods, but in diminishing quantities if none of the other boarders demonstrate any appetite for them. Economics, you know!

William Hogarth 031
The Polling, the third of four paintings in 1755 in The Humours of an Election series by William Hogarth (1697-1764).

Eventually you are down to scraping up only a few forkfuls of the food you prefer, hardly enough to maintain yourself without hunger. You look over the other diners with some envy because they seem quite pleased with the choices they’ve made, which appears to come down always to those two main courses you saw them eating on the first occasion. Occasionally there is a little more of one than the other on offer, but invariably there is more than enough to satisfy everyone. Growing hungrier with the meager quantities of food you requested, you reluctantly decide to join the crowd and try eating first one of the popular main courses, and then the other.

Not bad, you think, eating some from the dish that seems to be favored by roomers at one side of the dining table. You reach across the table and help yourself to a plateful of food from the main course favored by diners on the other side of the table. A little better, you think, chewing, but not all that different from the first dish. Both foods are rather bland and uninteresting, and the main difference appears to be in the sauce that dresses up each food. All the same, they are foods that appear to sustain life, however uninteresting they may be, and unresponsive to your actual desires. Strangely, even though there is ultimately little difference between the two main courses, your fellow diners earnestly try to persuade you to pledge your loyalty to one or the other, citing the need to have yet more of the same.

Tiring of the complacency of your fellow roomers, who seem too easily satisfied, and of the disdain the serving staff increasingly displays toward them, you elect to go exploring the rest of the boarding house, making your way to the top floor where it is rumored a wealthy man lives, or at least spends part of his time. You had heard the wealthy man owned the boarding house, and many others besides along that street of boarding houses. Sneaking along the corridor because the staff had previously intimated that none of the regular boarders were welcome on the top floor of the house, you hear conversation and the clinking of dishes behind one of the doors.

From the “Adam’s Ribs” episode of the third season of M*A*S*H in 1974, Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce stages a mess hall rebellion while his friend Trapper John, played by Wayne Rogers, looks on.

You stealthily push open the door barely enough to peek inside, where sits the wealthy man at his own dining table, surrounded by his friends and by more of the staff than you ever knew was available to you and your fellows downstairs. There on the dining table are all the foods you had imagined you could have had, and more. There was none of the bland slop served in such great quantity downstairs. There were many, many choices, and whatever the wealthy man and his friends desired, the obsequious staff brought to them.

Quietly closing the door, you went back downstairs to your place and awaited an opportunity at the next meal among your fellows to mention what you had seen, and when your chance came and you spoke up, everyone stopped eating and glared at you, their discomfort with bald reality and with you for pointing it out to them making itself apparent. From then on, you could eat with them, but every one of them despised you as a troublemaker. No one heard any more of the wealthy man on the top floor, though they noted dumbly over time that the variety of the foods at their own table steadily dwindled until there were only the two bland, cheap courses they had chosen as if there were little else available. They got what they asked for, and they were satisfied with that, and never mind the staff serving it up with scorn.
― Ed.