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Nicole Stephens, assistant professor of management and organizations.

Nicole Stephens

The dark side of choice

Thinking about choice can make people less empathetic and less supportive of policies that shape society, Assistant Professor Nicole Stephens finds

3/30/2011 - Too much choice can be a bad thing — not just for the individual, but for society.

Thinking about choices makes people less empathetic to others and less likely to support certain public policies, according to a study co-authored by Nicole Stephens, assistant professor of management and organizations.

The study, "The Unanticipated Interpersonal and Societal Consequences of Choice: Victim-Blaming and Reduced Support for the Public Good," will appear in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“Choice is a cornerstone of American culture,” Stephens said. “These studies are the first to investigate the potential dark side of choice for society. We find that mere exposure to the idea of choice makes people less empathetic toward others, more likely to blame victims for uncontrollable negative life outcomes, and less supportive of public policies that seek to benefit society as a whole.”

Choice is prevalent in American society as early as preschool, with children choosing what to eat, whom to be friends with and what movies to watch or books to read. People also use choice to explain, understand and to motivate behavior. For example, important policy debates are often framed in terms of choice, such as whether people get to choose their own healthcare plan or a school for their children. Choice has positive consequences for individuals in terms of motivation, well-being and performance, Stephens said.

Americans tend to assume that what people do and what happens to them is under their control, that those results are a consequence of their choices and that they are responsible for them.

Along with Krishna Savani of Columbia University and Hazel Rose Markus of Stanford University, Stephens looked at how thinking about choice affected people's feelings about public policies. In one experiment, participants watched a video of a person doing a set of routine daily activities in an apartment. Some participants were told to push the space bar every time the subject made a choice; others were told to do so every time he touched an object for the first time. They were then asked their opinions on social issues. Simply thinking about “choice” made people less likely to support public policies, such as affirmative action, a tax on fuel-inefficient cars, or banning violent video games.

Another experiment found that when people think about choice, they are more likely to blame others for bringing bad events, such as a heart attack or job loss, on themselves.

Stephens and her colleagues wondered if this was also true for people outside of the U. S., so they tried an experiment in India. After choosing among consumer objects like pens and chocolate bars, both American students and Indian students were shown a photograph of a poor child and given a description of his life. Thinking about choice led Americans to be less empathetic toward the child, but had no effect on Indians.

The authors suggest that in the long run, the proliferation of choice in America might have a cumulative negative impact for society as a whole, making people less empathetic towards others and less concerned about the collective good.