Man walks into a column, no.13: Choice

The always excellent Oliver Burkeman wrote a piece recently about losing weight; this despite the fact he is demonstrably thin. His aim: to zero in on the secrets of success of WeightWatchers which, unfortunately, turns out to be a company with a lot of money staked on keeping its secrets to itself.

Thankfully WeightWatchers' key insight is so simple as to be unpatentable, and it is this: human beings cannot succeed unless they feel like they have some autonomy. That's what's at the heart of the WeightWatchers points system: you're not told what to eat, but you know how much is too much.

But, crucially, only a very small dollop of that feeling of freedom is required. As Burkeman puts it:

Social psychologists agree on few things so unanimously as that we need this feeling of autonomy in order to thrive. Research, for example, indicates it’s not stress per se so much as stress we can’t control that causes health problems ... Yet too often we try to change ourselves, or others, by denying that autonomy (“I’ll stop eating red meat for good!”, “All staff must be at their desks by 8.30am!”), against which, craving a sense of independence, we rebel.

I don't know about you but I can completely identify with that sense of building rules one minute only to take a strange satisfaction in acting in such a way as to demolish them the next. Too much autonomy, though, would be counter productive: no-one would lose weight if the WeightWatchers points system allowed you freedom to choose with real impunity between a burger and a carrot. But that's ok because a gentle sense of autonomy - Burkeman uses the example of the ability to choose between working from home and travelling to the office - is sufficient to transform our mood.

And therein lies the rub, the sting in the tale. If our hunger to be the masters of our own destinies can be so easily sated, then surely it can be easily manipulated - by politicians, by people selling us things, by bosses at work. And what's more, the corollary of being happy with a modest amount of freedom is that too much choice is unsettling, a nuisance, threatening even. Which is why, time and again, we look for a guide, a structure, or a recommendation.

This does have sinister undertones - I blogged about the Facebookization of the web a couple of months ago ('wherever you go online, you'll see your friends' - however many great friends you have, surely the stuff of nightmares).

I wonder what the good and bad examples are of willing choice constraint in the world of public services. Personal budgets that lead to a reduced level of service? The chance to run a staff mutual when there's no money left in the kitty? The ability to take voluntary redundancy rather than be forced our of your job? Are we being offered a 'choice' in order to make us feel better about ourselves when, actually, there's no freedom at all?

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