The Paradox of Choice

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Expectant flower beds awaiting new seedlings (tomatillos in tubs keeping them company).

Having done a bit of a U-turn recently on the Cottage Garden ethos of ornamentals and edibles cheek by jowl, I’ve been clearing some sunny 3ft x 5 ft beds in the front garden with the express purpose of filling them with plants that’ll give me dizzying, eye-popping, heart-pumping highs.

That’s right: flowers, flowers, and more flowers – flowers being my legal high of choice. Which means I’ve needed to start thinking seriously about Hardy Annuals. The idea being that if I sow HA seed now on the brink of autumn, the Hardy Boys (and girls) will be able to toughen out the winter, setting down sturdy and substantial root systems in the Nietzchian school-of-war spirit (“what does not kill us makes us stronger”) and so be ready, come spring/early-summer, with eye-popping colour and beauty.

But what to plant in my carefully weeded and chicken-pooh enriched beds? A search on Chiltern Seeds offers over a thousand options (1054 to be precise), which will take me an enervating and motivation-sapping week to sift through. I’m also likely to be none the wiser after having done so. On the other hand, I don’t want to be unadventurous and just follow some RHS diktat or the gardening advice doled out like cream teas to Daily Telegraph readers.

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Not another hyperlink, dear God, please.

I don’t just get this drowning-in-choice feeling with seeds. I get it on Twitter, Facebook, when scrolling through all the articles I’ve saved to “Read Later” on whatever app I have open on the app-laden, choice-burgeoned phone. I’m starting to think this might extend to everything online: unless I’m doing a very focused and limited search, I’m generally left feeling devitalized after willy-nilly surfing, also jittery, robbed of time and energy. And I’m not alone in noticing this.

Barry Schwartz has called this problem “the paradox of choice” and cites in his wonderful book a whole slew of social science studies backing up the notion that the more choice we have (information, entertainment, life-opportunities, and yes, Hardy Annual seeds) the more likely we are to end up feeling dissatisfied and existentially itchy after this wading-through process of choosing. And possibly worse: chronically unhappy, neurotic, depressed.

Here’s one of my favourite studies that hints at why this might be. Shoppers in a gourmet deli were offered the chance to sample 6 different “exotic, high quality” jams, and given a dollar-off coupon to purchase their favourite if they so wished. Imagine some funky takes on the standard fare, like Raspberry & Chocolate Jam, or more peculiar varieties like Rose Petal, Banana, Carrot & Almond.

In another deli, a similar set-up, only this time, consumers were given the choice of 24 different varieties (Strawberry Jalapeno Jam, Bourbon Bacon Jam, Cantaloupe, Cactus-Date Conserve etc.) as well as a coupon.

Here’s what happened:

“The large array of jams attracted more people to the table than the small array, though in both cases people tasted about the same number of jams on average.

When it came to buying, however, a huge difference became evident. Thirty percent of the people exposed to the small array of jams actually bought a jar; only 3 percent of those exposed to the large array of jams did so.”

This makes sense if you consider the wetware we’re carrying around between our ears, the pinkish-greyish jelly that helps us make up our minds. This cerebral tofu predates jam, delis, social science, and well, everything else we believe ourselves to be God-given entitled to.

Unlike the latest iOS on our phone or tablet which gets an update every time Tim Cook goes for a pee, the most recent human brain update occurred about 250,000 years ago (H.sapiensOS), followed by a few tiny tweaks when we changed our 2 million year-old hunter-gathering lifestyle to became gardeners and farmers. That was about 10,000 years ago.

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Where’s the jam, Sam?

Our brains are essentially designed for the limited choices of our very earliest ancestors, the Pleistocene Homo erectus. For two millions years they would have faced basic survival decisions like: do I take shelter near this stream which also has a grove of mango trees next to it, or do I try and find that lake where the buffalo herds gathered last year? In terms of satiating our desire for sugar for example, a choice of two options would have been a bounty for Homo E., let-alone six versions of sweetness.

Another factor to consider is personality type. It would seem that an ever greater number of us denizens of Western capitalism are now becoming Maximizers in terms of our personality style.

A Maximizer is someone who consciously (or unconsciously, but borne out by behaviour) attempts to seek, and will often only accept the “best” in almost every aspect of their life. The opposite of a Maximizer is someone who is able to feel satisfied by a “good enough” option, a Satisficer.

If you want to see where you lie on the Maximization scale, here’s a quick 13-item survey for you to find out.

Bottom line: Maximizers spend so much time fretting over their choices that they lose out on the pleasures of both choosing, and actually enjoying what they’ve chosen. Satisficers are the ones out there in the garden, smiles on their faces, choices made relatively swiftly and certainly less tortuously, planting their good-enough options, and enjoying doing so.

So how to apply this to seed-shopping?

If, as the subtitle of Schwartz’s book suggests that “more is less”, then we need in our stultifying abundance a whole bunch of strategies to help us get the most out of the less-is-more paradigm (i.e. turning from Maximizers into Satisficers – Schwartz’s full list of suggestions on how to do that can be found here).

These include strategies like: choosing through satisficing, considering opportunity costs, making nonreversible decisions, not falling into the trap of social comparisons, and learning to “love constraints” (yes! but without the hairshirt). Or to put it in simple, practical, Hardy-Annual Terms: do your seed-shopping at Higgledy Garden.

Higgledy-Garden-Seed-Sowing-Guide-2012HG is the lovingly curated project of Benjamin Ranyard who grows traditional annual flowers in a Cornish paddock as well as selling his seed stock from his online Higgledy Garden Shop. Everything from the woodblock-printed vibe of his seed packets, to his jaunty, cock-a-hoop descriptions of the plants and his flower-growing adventures reads as one bloke’s singular, quirky, vision, and I love it.

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Buying Hardy Annuals from a faceless mega-seed corporation or this chap – not a hard choice is it?

Ben’s the guy in the first deli offering you six jams to choose from, as opposed to 24. Or to put it in the slightly more inflated digits of seed-to-jam ratios: he’s carefully curated about 50 Hardy Annuals on his site for you to choose from compared to Chiltern’s 1050.

This means that even if the Maximizer part of you is thinking “Maybe I should compare and contrast Ben’s single sweetpea offering in the hue of creamy-white (‘Jilly’) with ‘Cathy’, ‘Dorothy Eckford’, ‘Mrs Collier’, and all her other quaintly-named sibs on the choice-abundant sites?”, don’t!

Or maybe the Maximiser is saying: “Perhaps it’s best I compare and contrast Ben’s prices and seeds-per-packet with every other seed provider on the internet before buying from him, just to make doubly, triply sure I’m getting the biggest and “best” bloom for my buck?”. Do not heed that insinuating Maximiser-voice.

Instead, here’s an opportunity to give the bantling Satisficer in me some practice in responding to those thought with these rejoinders.

-“Eff off Maximizer, you’ve read your Schwartz, you know that there lies the road to dissatisfaction. I’m not going there.”

Or perhaps with a bit more remonstration:

-“Woah, Maximizer. Why not take the Higgledy option? Clearly this guy has a real passion, and has no doubt done his homework when it comes to Hardy Annuals. If he thinks your flower beds should be filled with Corncockles and Cosmos Pied Pipers – “the Marc Bolan of the Cosmos world” as he pleasingly puts it– then maybe you should let him be your guide.”

So I’m going to be following the wise advice of my fledgling Satisficer today and put in a Higgledy Garden order for Hardy Annuals. Will keep you posted on the difference this makes to my levels of well-being and state of play in the HA cut-flower beds over the next year.