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Understanding the Psychology of the American Idea of Choice

Thinking about options decreases support for equality and reduces empathy

iStock/Lise Gagne

Choice is a fundamental American value that often lies at the center of heated political discussions. For example, disputes about the Affordable Healthcare Act have hinged on whether buying health insurance should be a personal choice. Recent research suggests that thinking about our lives in terms choices may reduce our support for public policies that promote greater equality in society. By emphasizing free will over the situational factors that shape people’s life experiences, thinking about choice may lead us to view inequality as less bothersome.

For example, thinking about choices may lead us to feel less concerned about the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor. In a recent paper published in Psychological Science, Krishna Savani of the National University of Singapore Business School and Aneeta Rattan of Stanford University asked some of their participants to list five things they did during the previous day at various time points. Other participants were asked to list five “choices” instead of things. Then, all participants were asked how disturbed they were by 10 facts regarding wealth inequality, such as “The richest 20% of people in the United States own 85% of all wealth in this country.” Those participants who had thought about their actions in terms of choices were less likely to feel alarmed. Choice may lead us to focus on how people’s freely chosen actions lead to either poverty or wealth, making wealth inequality seem like a reasonable result rather than a public problem that needs to be solved.

Although political orientation is related to the degree to which people support policies designed to promote equality, Savani and Rattan found that the idea of choice influenced the opinions of both liberals and conservatives. In another experiment, they had participants watch a short video of a person doing mundane activities in an apartment, such as opening mail or reading a magazine. Some participants were asked to press a button whenever they saw the person in the video touch an object. Other participants were asked to press the button whenever they perceived that the person in the video was making a choice.  Later all participants were asked to read about public policies designed to redistribute educational resources in a community in order to make things more equal between the wealthy and the poor. Those who had been prompted to think about choices, regardless of their own political leanings, expressed less support for the equalizing policies.

The results from these studies may have something to do with how closely Americans associate choice with freedom. When Americans are made to think about choice, they may shift their attitudes in favor of policies that promote individual freedom rather than restrict it. In 2011 Savani and his colleagues published a set of studies demonstrating that thinking about choice decreases people’s support for laws that limit individual freedoms, such as banning violent video games or levying environmental taxes on fuel-inefficient cars. Thinking about choice also led people to feel more positively towards laws that uphold individual freedoms, such as laws legalizing marijuana.

Unfortunately, they found that thinking about choice also had a downside: it led people to feel less empathy towards others who have experienced negative life events. For example, participants who had thought about choices, were more likely to blame people who had experienced car accidents, physical abuse, or a loss of their home due to a building collapse.

Since choice and freedom are emphasized to a greater degree in Western countries, Savani and his colleagues wanted to know whether their results would hold up in a different culture. They designed a study where American or Indian participants were asked to either choose small items for themselves (e.g. a pen or keychain) or simply describe items that somebody else already chose. Then, all participants were shown a picture of an African child who was described as desperately poor and facing starvation.  They were asked how much money they would be willing to donate to the child and how upset they were by the child’s situation.

For Americans, the act of making a simple choice caused them to feel less upset about the starving child’s plight. For Indians, making this choice had no effect on how they felt towards the child. Their level of distress about the child was the same, regardless of whether they had been asked to make a choice. Making choices, even trivial ones, may symbolize something important to Americans but not to Indians. For Americans, the idea of choice may be more strongly linked to ideals such as independence from societal constraints. Even a minor focus on small choices can activate these ideals, leading Americans to overemphasize the role that choice has in shaping our life outcomes. The potential downside is that for Americans, thinking about life in terms of choices may decrease our interest in helping others. When viewed through the lens of choice, people’s misfortunes are seen as caused by the actions they’ve taken rather than situations they have encountered. This may seem to bode poorly for solving social problems that require cooperation. However, Savani and his colleagues point out that it may be possible to use the effects of choice to our own advantage. If cooperation and helpfulness are framed as expressions of choice and free will, Americans may become even more charitable than others.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT or Twitter @garethideas.

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