The Myth of Choice: Book Review

We all believe we have the freedom to make choices.  Our diplomatic and legal systems are founded on that presumption; whole systems of religion and philosophy rely on the concept.  But what if our ability to choose is not completely within our control?  What if there are no real choices?  What if we aren’t as free as we think we are?  These are some of the questions contemplated by Kent Greenfield’s The Myth of Choice.

Kent Greenfield is a law professor, so his perspective is colored, but not controlled, by that background.  He goes through how our culture, our brains, and the free market impact our choices.

He also has some insights you maybe wouldn’t necessarily consider as pertaining to the concept of choice.  For example, he cites to some studies that have found that humans remember past experiences by condensing them to their salient elements, which tend to be whatever was best or worst about the experience, and whatever happened first and last.  How does that impact our decision to, say, have another baby?  Make a certain purchase?  Go on another vacation?

He talks about the so-called “bikini effect” in advertising, an enlightening twist on the sex sells theory.

He goes through a thorough analysis of that infamous sociological experiment where volunteers are recruited to participate in a study where one party (an actor, in on the “experiment”) is asked a series of questions, and the other participant is asked to press a button for every wrong answer, providing the other participant with a supposed and increasingly painful electric jolt.  We have all heard some version of this study, but the results, I think, will still shock and surprise, and he provides some interesting answers to the obvious question “why?”

He went through a careful consideration on the ideas of mandatory health insurance and helmet laws for motorcyclists.  I don’t know that I could sum it up and do it justice, but I found it very interesting.  Basically, somebody has to pay, so the choice is not as black and white as it would maybe seem, and the possible universe of consequences is more than you would immediately or obviously suspect.

He talks about brain science and psychology.  The influences of friends and peers.  Accountability, and whether bright lines can be or should be drawn (at, for example, ages 16, 18, or 21).

He talks about the importance of habit and playing an active role in the habits we form.  “Habits that ‘just happen’ are as likely to be destructive as constructive,” he says.

He discusses the importance of being self-aware, even, and perhaps especially, of our own fallibility.  Otherwise we are vulnerable to manipulation from those who understand our own nature perhaps better than we do ourselves.

He quotes Henry Miller.

Oh, and there was a really interesting joke/analogy comparing culture to water: our culture is to us what water is to a fish.  “What water?”  Exactly.  Think about it.

Are we slaves to our brain chemistry?  Can we avoid human nature?  Have you ever thought of choice as rhetoric rather than a fundamental human/spiritual/American precept?  Is it nature versus nurture?  And can knowing or thinking about this make any difference?

If you have ever wondered any of these things, or you are just curious about any of the above, you should definitely check out Greenfield’s book.  I have an ARC copy I would happily provide to a loving home.  Hit me up!

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