Freedom of Choice

A while back, one of our hygienists asked the front desk here at Smile Sarasota to research the differences between several kinds of Crest toothpaste. We were amazed at the all the choices – there are 12, and this was just Crest! Retailers sell about 353 types and sizes of toothpaste. In 2010, 69 new kinds of toothpaste were introduced to consumers. (and this was 4 years ago!) Both of these figures actually represent a decrease from previous years, when more than 400 varieties of toothpaste lined store shelves and over 100 new products came out annually! Consider this list:

  • 85 different varieties and brands of crackers.
  • 285 varieties of cookies.
  • 165 varieties of “juice drinks”
  • 75 iced teas
  • 95 varieties of snacks (chips, pretzels, etc.)
  • 61 varieties of sun tan oil and sunblock
  • 80 different pain relievers
  • 360 types of shampoo, conditioner, gel, and mousse.
  • 90 different cold remedies and decongestants.
  • 230 soups, including 29 different chicken soups
  • 120 different pasta sauces
  • 175 different salad dressings and if none of them suited, 15 extra-virgin olive oils and 42 vinegars and make one’s own.
  • 275 varieties of cereal

At the time we were researching the toothpaste choices, we were asked by one of our patients to donate toothpaste and toothbrushes for a mission trip he was taking to Cuba, which we were happy to do. When he returned, he reported about the extreme poverty and the fact that the people of Cuba have no choices. “Grocery stores had a very poor variety and selection of products.” This got us thinking about freedom and about how many choices we have compared to other parts of the world.

In his book, The Paradox of Choice – Why More is LessBarry Schwartz states that in the United States, we live in a time and a place in which freedom and autonomy are valued above all else and in which expanded opportunities for “self-determination” are regarded as a sign of the psychological well-being of individuals and the moral well-being of the culture. And we take choice as the critical sign that we have freedom and autonomy. But he also states that having too many things to choose from often leads to the consumer feeling bewildered when facing the choice, and less satisfied even after making a decision. He cites studies that indicate people are less likely to buy a product when faced with too many choices. Beyond ‘choice paralysis’ caused by too many choices, an abundance of choice is also likely to produce worse decisions because people attempt to simplify the choice to a point where the simplification impedes their ability to make a good choice. Isn’t it strange that having too many choices can actually impede our freedom? Barry’s suggestion for alleviating the anxiety we feel from choices is to voluntarily limit the number of items you consider. The people in Cuba don’t have to worry about that.

Now for the big question: Which toothpaste should you be using? For what can be a confusing shopping decision, the answer, blessedly, is remarkably simple. Just make sure it has fluoride and has the American Dental Association seal. So long as it meets these criteria (and most toothpastes do), the best advice is to pick a toothpaste with a flavor and taste you like, simply because then you’ll be more likely to brush.

And…be thankful for FREEDOM!