The Limits of Freedom: Why We Want "More," But We Need Less
More choices equal more freedom, right? On the whole, we think that if we have more options before us, we can make a superior decision.
Turns out, the opposite may be true. The fewer options, the stronger our decisions.
This is part of what psychologist Barry Schwartz called “the paradox of choice.”
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The Fruit Jam Experiment
In 2000, the psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper performed a study in a grocery store in California.
They ran a tasting booth on two separate days. On the first testing day, 24 exotic jams (the extensive-choice display) were displayed and customers could taste as many as they wanted. Of the 242 customers who walked by, 145 (60%) sampled from the display.
On the second day of testing, only 6 jams (the limited-choice display) were set out. Of the 260 customers who walked by, 104 (only 40%) sampled the jams.
The larger selection attracted a greater percentage of customers (60% vs 40%).
Here’s the first crazy part of the experiment.
It didn’t matter if there were 24 choices or 6 choices, the customers sampled the same number of jams! From the extensive-choice display, customers chose an average of 1.50 jams. From the limited choice display, customers chose 1.38 jams. Practically no difference at all!
The Craziest Part
Every customer who tasted the jams from either display was given a coupon for $1-off a purchase of the jams. Of the customers who tasted from the 6-jam display, 30% went on to actually buy a jam. Of the customers who tasted from the 24-jam display, only 3% went on to buy a jam!
The customers exposed to limited choices were more likely to purchase a product than the customers exposed to more choices!
The researchers believed that even though the larger choice selection appealed to more customers, the larger selection also reduced any motivation to make an actual purchase.
“Too much” choice hampered their motivation to choose.
The “Opportunity Cost”
Iynegar and Lepper’s research paper is actually a series of tests – more than just jams – in a study entitled “When Choice Is Demotivating.”
The experiments all seem to point to the conclusion that the limited-choice seems to motivate and connect to people more than the extensive-choice.
This seems related to what economists call “opportunity cost” – whereby making a decision to choose one means to sacrifice the others. For example, if you have six choices of an insurance plan, to choose one plan is to forego the other five.
Therefore, the greater the number of choices, the more “cost” that is involved. The greater the number of choices, the more exhausting the decision.
Practical applications of this research might involve limiting the number of choices on a restaurant’s menu. In fact, this is frequently what Gordon Ramsay does on his show Kitchen Nightmares. It might help to limit the number of Medicare plans or prescriptions available to seniors. It might help to limit the number of subjects children must study in the same semester.
Choice is the practical application of freedom in our daily lives. When critical choices are taken from us, this is the definition of tyranny. But humans are not infinite. There might be only a small number of choices we are capable of processing at any one time. Otherwise, as the proverb goes, “our eyes become bigger than our stomachs.”
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Iyenar, S. and M. Lepper. “When Choice Is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2000, 79, 995-1006.
Schwartz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice. HarperCollins, 2004.
“Fire Ice”: The World’s Largest Fuel Source - and China Got There First
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Scientifically speaking, ice is a rock. When you lock methane in this rock it’s called methane hydrate...and it’s the largest fuel-source on the planet.
And China got there first!
According to the USGS Woods Hole Science Center, methane hydrates are created when ice forms a cage-lattice around a low molecular weight gas (principally methane). The ice is like a net that captures whatever gas which will fit inside. There’s still a lot of mystery regarding methane hydrate formation.
Methane hydrate formation requires large pressures and low temperatures. So it’s no surprise to learn that methane hydrates form underground in cold environments, principally in the ocean’s continental shelves, but also in the Arctic permafrost. Methane hydrates can even form in modern gas lines and plug the line! The fix is to raise temperatures or lower pressures.
The methane is usually biological in origin - the result of microbes that are eating decaying carbon matter. However, there are some methane hydrates that get their methane from the deep-processes of the Earth itself (thermogenic methane).
Methane hydrate can form in veins and even in large masses. However, methane hydrate forms primarily in the tiny pores of marine sediments, which makes it even harder to mine as a fuel source.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration states that estimated gas hydrate reserves stand at anywhere from 10,000 trillion cubic feet (TCF) to 100,000 TCF. For comparison, the U.S. EIA stated that as of 1 January 2016 there were 6,879 TCF of conventional natural gas in the world. Methane hydrate could potentially be a larger potential fuel source than all other carbon-based fuels like oil, gas, and coal combined!
Even though methane hydrate deposits are generally only a few hundred meters below the continental shelves (as opposed to oil reserves miles below ground), there have been a multitude of problems harvesting the hydrates.
But on May 18 of this year, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported that China had finally succeeded in extracting methane from the hydrates. According to the report, China is extracting about 16,000 cubic meters of gas daily. The drilling area is in the South China Sea, and they are pulling the gas from a depth of 1,266 meters.
The United States has been in collaboration with the governments of Japan and India with methane hydrate recovery projects. These projects have not yet yielded China’s claimed results.
There have been worries that methane hydrates are contributing to global warming. Since methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, one might argue that using methane hydrates for fuel might be a safer way of disposing of the climate threat than letting the hydrates release methane directly into the atmosphere.
However, the USGS has concluded after a decade of research that methane hydrates are not contributing to Earth’s warmth at all. Should we let sleeping dogs lie? Can the world afford to let such an energy resource go untapped?
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Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.