The paradox of choice

In his book The Paradox of Choice – Why More Is Less, published in 2004, the American psychologist Barry Schwartz argues how eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers.

Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.

Schwartz’ hypothesis got me thinking about ascent configurations used in tree care.

If ISA’s Ascent Event has demonstrated one thing, it is that there is a dizzying array of variations upon the theme of ascent systems being used in arboriculture today. This is also something I find reflected in workshops or when doing in-house training sessions for companies. Rarely will two climbers be using the same systems to access the canopy, the differences admittedly sometimes being minor – yet other times they can also be really significant in terms of equipment used, configuration or line set-up.

Frankly, this leaves me feeling somewhat perplexed and uneasy. It is often difficult, if not impossible to harmonise the wide range of systems used in the same crew, making emergency planning a challenge. Oftentimes team mates will not be familiar with each other’s set-ups, this is further exacerbated by the fact that when actually running aerial rescue scenarios, regularly it turns out that certain systems have a basic incompatibility, making it nigh-on impossible or at least very complex for team mates to rescue each other.

It is hard to counter this trend, as there is not really a benchmark to refer back to. In view of this plethora of systems, I sometimes cannot help but wonder whether how people chose to ascend is almost viewed as an expression of their individuality, rather than an expression of intuitiveness and efficiency.

In The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz outlines a number of steps in order to come to well-founded decisions:

  • Define your goal(s),
  • evaluate the importance of each goal,
  • lay out the options,
  • evaluate how likely each of the options is to help you meet your goals,
  • pick the winning option, and finally, if necessary,
  • modify your goals.

Based on what I am seeing, I doubt whether this process is applied consistently when people design their ascent systems, rather it seems to me that there are other factors and mechanisms in play, such as…

  • “I saw this on social media, everybody seems to be talking about it”
  • “The boss provided me with this piece of kit”
  • “I am going to use this piece of rope to attach to that ascender as I had it kicking around anyway”
  • “I pledged 50 bucks on Kickstarter towards this device”
  • “I think I saw someone use this set-up at a recent comp”

My intent is not to be negative here, but I cannot help but wonder whether we are not falling for the paradox of choice lock, stock and barrel – literally not seeing the forest for all the trees. Is the range of options, permutations and variations in fact obstructing the view of the parameters we are actually striving to achieve?

The good news is that getting there is not rocket science, but it will require a different kind of discussion, involving more deliberation and reflection, as well as a deeper consideration of underlying goals rather than simply the means of how to get from A to B.