The Tyranny of Choice

How capitalism and the Internet have made it more difficult to find Mr. or Ms. Right.

Imagine you are a 30-something woman, educated, fit, good-looking, caring. You want to settle down with a man ‏(without necessarily wanting to marry him‏). That seemingly simple goal is surprisingly difficult to realize: either you do not find the right man despite your endless searches, or when you do find him, he seems to elude commitment. Our culture teaches us that such problems belong in women’s magazines and psychologists’ offices. However, they actually have much to do with capitalism.

Critiques of capitalism usually focus on its structural aspects ‏(like competitiveness and monopolies‏) or its cultural pathologies ‏(irrationality for one, along with its promotion of a shallow, transient consumerism‏). What received somewhat less attention is the fact that capitalism has had a profound impact on an institution cherished by romantics and conservatives − the family. Women defer childbearing because they prefer to develop career paths provided by capitalist organizations.

Illouz - Yael Bogen - February 10, 2012

When they become mothers, most contemporary women keep working, because work has become a part of self-fulfillment and household expenditures now demand a dual income. The well-known struggle between work and family is thus a direct outcome not only of feminism but also of capitalism, and an example of the ways in which capitalism infiltrates and affects the structure of the family.

There is even less awareness of the fact that capitalism has reshaped the unpredictable process of pairing: that is, how men and women interested in sex and romance meet, how long they stay together, and whether they decide to commit − or not − to each other. Feminism has so often been blamed for the current disarray in romantic and sexual relationships that we have neglected to focus on the more immediate and far more obvious cause: capitalism.

If “meeting the right person” seems to have become a daunting task; if men have become, according to endless articles in women’s magazines, “commitment-phobic”; and if sexual encounters rarely morph into meaningful relationships, it is because of the ways in which capitalism has reshaped the social structure of encounters. Until quite recently, pairing was − in most parts of Europe − controlled by parents, kin, the community, churches, states or legislatures.

When, at the age of 23, Jean-Paul Sartre − who would become the towering representative of 20th-century sexual freedom − failed the competitive French agregation exam, his engagement was broken by his fiancee’s parents. Everyone understood and accepted that a man’s capacity to provide status and income for a woman was a condition for middle-class marriage.

Pairing − getting together for the purpose of reproduction, sexual pleasure, companionship − has been in most societies closely regulated because it involves the transfer of property, the legal and economic status of women and children, the organization of biological reproduction. At face value, modern pairing seems to be impelled only by feelings.

However, falling in love and pairing depend on what I call the ecology of choice. Ecology of choice is the set of invisible forces ‏(geographic, cultural, economic‏) that determine which and how many partners are available for us to choose from, and how we choose them. For example, premodern people tended to make endogamic choices; that is, they married people who belonged to their own religious, ethnic, national and socioeconomic group.

Modern people choose from much wider samples, with little or no prohibitions on the partner’s origin. Premodern people made a decision to marry based on a sense of social duty and convention; we modern people tend to do it out of a desire to realize our private inner self. Premodern people tended to feel bound by a simple declaration of love or a few weeks of courtship; modern people prefer to keep their options always open, even after getting married.

Capitalism affects the ecology of choice of a partner − how people meet each other, how many they can meet, and how people make evaluations and decisions about such relationships. Let me give only one or two examples of how it does that.

Premodern marriage was important both for men and women to establish their social status. Men wanted to marry as much as women did because they could control property, a household, children and people working on a given plot of land. Patriarchy depended very much on family. But under the capitalist system, men go to work independently from their family, by selling themselves on a market. Their economic survival and social status are no longer mediated by family, neither their original one nor the one they form through marriage.

In capitalist societies, men affirm their masculinity through their capacity to be autonomous from others and their capacity to dominate others in an economic ‏(not a patrimonial‏) organization. The family thus becomes, if not superfluous to masculinity, at least optional. In the absence of strong cultural norms and economic reasons for marrying, men are more reluctant than women to enter marriage ‏(or its proxy‏).

In capitalism, women have a more ambivalent status. Because of the rise, in the early 20th century, of massive, powerful industries selling sexual “attractiveness” − fashion, cosmetics, cinema, magazines, advertising, fitness − women redefined themselves as sexual beings. Sexual attractiveness, “sexiness,” became central to femininity. Men began legitimately to pursue women for their sexual attractiveness, and for sexual relations − with no intent to marry, but for the sole purpose of pleasure. This in turn created a form of pairing disconnected from matrimony, what sociologists call “recreational sex”: One could and should have sex without being “forced” into marriage.

Yet, pervasive economic gender inequality and the persistence of the ideal of motherhood made the family still central to ‏(heterosexual‏) women. Because in capitalist economies, men are now busy affirming masculinity in a world of competitive men, it is women who become preoccupied with ‘commitment’ and with having children. Thus conditions are set for men and women to pursue pairing in different ways, and pairing becomes a complicated emotional negotiation between men and women.

The complexity of modern pairing has at least three aspects:

1. The samples from which men and women choose each other have considerably expanded, making the question of how best to choose crucial. That is, the crucial question is how best to identify the one most suitable person in a wide sample of possibilities.

2. The criteria used to evaluate another have become elaborate and multiple ‏(emotional, psychological, physical, sexual, considerations of a shared lifestyle and consumer tastes‏). This in turn makes choice a cognitive and emotional task far more complex than in the past.

3. Sexuality is increasingly cultivated for its own sake by men and women, generating a split between sexual relations and stable, committed relationships. This makes the process of choice far more confused, because monogamy is now experienced as a decision to withdraw from the world of endless sexual choices. Modern pairing is complex precisely because feelings are so tightly shaped by the problem of choice: whom to choose, how to choose, how to know how to choose, and how to maximize one’s choice.

In this context of infinite choice, Internet dating sites have emerged as profitable capitalist ventures to help bring some order to these large and unregulated samples of people trying to pair up. Premodern people used a very rudimentary form of rationality to look for a mate. They did not engage in highly cognized, reflexive, introspective or systematic techniques of search for a mate, but tended to settle for the first available “good-enough” choice.

n contrast, Internet technology now offers algorithms and long questionnaires to find the most suitable person in a wide sample of possible available partners, according to highly refined search criteria. The samples of possible partners offered by the Internet dating sites are larger than any such sample ever was in history, making the question of choice ever more acute. The problem is to find out and select the person who will satisfy highly elaborate aspirations ‏(educational, economic, psychological, emotional, sexual‏).

Yet, while offering many useful tools, the Internet makes the search for a partner even more complex because it is plagued by contradictions:

1. The most obvious one is that Internet technology uses highly rational techniques to help realize an objective that is irrational ‏(falling in love.‏) The “profile” consists of drawing up a list of attributes. These attributes now define who we search for. This is in contrast to the pre-Internet era, when the search for a partner was based largely on what cognitive psychologists call “intuition.”

Intuition is based on evaluating people based on nonverbal cues; these nonverbal cues help us make a quick decision about a person. Intuition is a nonconscious form of judgment and evaluation based on the emotional meaning objects hold for us. In contrast, online dating encourages us to give and to get an enormous amount of verbal information, which often burdens rather than helps make an evaluation . Why? Because when we have too much verbal information − what psychologists call “information overload” − we become confused and paralyzed. The Internet is thus a technology that makes users search for a partner in a way that makes it difficult to use the only tools we have for getting attached to others: emotions and “intuition.”

2. Internet users visualize the pool of potential partners and are thus able to compare them. The Internet presents an array of possible choices, as if on a buffet table, and solicits a mode of choice derived from the economic sphere: Potential partners are actively compared with each other, measured, and ranked. The Internet enables the development of a comparative mindset, made possible by the fact that the technology lays out choices and offers tools ‏(such as “scorecards”‏) to measure the relative merits of each potential partner.

This has one main effect: As a great deal of research in cognitive psychology shows, increasing choice and enabling comparison between different possibilities actually dampens feelings for one object, making it difficult to develop strong preferences. Ironically, choice may inhibit the ability to choose one option among many and commit to it.

3. Consistent with the logic of consumer culture, the Internet dating sites encourage an increasing specification and refinement of tastes. Internet dating sites display the consumerist logic of narrowing, defining, refining tastes, and comparing among alternative possibilities. But what makes such refining of taste fraught with difficulties is the fact that in our culture, a choice must be maximized − that is, it cannot be “a good-enough” choice, but rather the best possible choice.

The Internet thus encourages the shift from what economist and Nobel laureate Herbert Simon called “satisficing” ‏(being happy with something good enough‏) to maximizing ‏(perpetually trying to improve one’s bargain‏). The result is difficulty in closing off the search. In a world of similar options, it is difficult to settle on one option; one always tries to improve on it.

Freedom has been the great political and moral mover of modernity. But we should not confuse freedom and the capitalist idea of choice. Freedom is a large, exhilarating collective experiment, and we are still in the midst of it. Freedom is the highest endeavor of human societies, but it can succeed only if we insist that it is a much greater moral and political ideal than “choice.”