The Paradox of Choice
Updated: Oct 15, 2018
When it comes to online dating, will abundant choice lead to love or drive us mad?
When I found myself, at 49, suddenly single, I was hell bent on not looking for the Next Big Thing. I needed a break from the ‘Relationship, with a capital R’. But when that’s what you’re used to, when that’s what most of your friends are doing, it’s easy to feel a bit uncertain of this position. Having cast myself adrift from the stability of a long-term monogamous marriage, it would have been easy to jump into someone else’s raft rather than learning how to swim solo. Now, however, the open waters of internet dating beckoned, and I decided to throw my profile into the swirling seas and find out what the sharks would do to me.
I started on Tinder, because that’s where all the cool kids were. A twenty-three year old barista told me about it. He went on to tell me a story about a girl he’d picked up off the site. I listened dumbfounded.
“You’re telling me this young woman got into a car with you at night and went to your friend’s house to party, having only just texted with you for ten minutes?!” I wanted to call the girl’s mother.
“Yeah, but nothing happened. Everything was fine. She’s sweet. We might see each other again.”
“Seriously?” I shook my head. And then I downloaded the app.
Thus it began.
Ten years ago American psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, in which he built upon numerous studies which suggest that while variety may indeed be the spice of life, too much will make you depressed, anxious and turn you into a colossal time waster. There’s the stress of being confronted by too much opportunity, the fear that we might choose poorly, the expectation that our choices must be the best, and the erosion of self caused by the continuous comparison of our choices with those of others. We may think that more choice will bring us greater happiness, but the truth is it may be doing the exact opposite.
There is no greater example of this paradox than in the world of internet dating. At one point I was on Tinder, OK Cupid and Guardian Soul Mates (even though that name made me want to stick my fingers down my throat). Getting text messages throughout the day from strangers who find you attractive is like sneaking into the office loo to take a little hit of cocaine: by 5:00 you realize you’ve been high as a kite all day and gotten absolutely fuck all accomplished.
But I was having fun. Let’s see, who should I meet first? The erudite bad boy or the gorgeously tattooed ad exec? Next would come the Coffee & Chemistry date. Most men under 40 on these dating sites didn’t believe it made much sense to talk or carry forward to email because, after deciding you were hot, they would write, ”We should just meet to test the chemistry.” I didn’t disagree, but I rather liked to know if a man could put together a well constructed sentence before I spent £13 coming into town for a £3 coffee and bad chemistry.
Even when I upped my age range to over 45 I had to accept that written wittiness did not always translate to physical chemistry even after weeks of electric correspondence. In fact, there was often an inverse correlation between the intensity of our virtual budding romance and the real deal. Too often I spent precious time bantering online only to discover that in person we were physically flat.
So I stopped trying to get turned on through lengthy emails and the dating frenzy began. There were plenty of men, thank you London, who met my visually pleasing and grammatically exacting criteria. I would schedule the coffee interview and see about the chemistry.
I started piling them up, back to back, and on one occasion had three dates within a ten hour period, one of whom took me to an hourly hotel because, obviously, the chemistry was good. But it became rare for me to make that second date. First off, why shouldn’t I go a little wild in a city of 10 million after being married for so long? I think we’ve dispensed with the notion that women who have lots of sex with lots of different people are bad girls; they’re just horny – like men. Duh. I was craving the unknown, the new experience. I was fascinated with the fact that every man kissed differently and, if we ended up between the sheets, there was a whole new set of differences I got to enjoy.
But after awhile it was like standing in front of a vending machine with an unending supply of change. Twenty-seven flavors of soda and I was beginning to suffer the sickening sugar shakes. No, I finally told myself, lemongrass mangostein is not going to be that much better than kiwi lime.
In an interview a decade on from the publication of ‘The Paradox of Choice’, Schwartz had this to say. “My suspicion is that dating sites have created just the thing I talk about [in the book] in connection with consumer goods: Nobody’s good enough and you’re always worried you’re missing out.”
I did feel that way, the Fear of Missing Out anxiety. I was quick to dismiss a man for some minor reason, such as a bad haircut, knowing there were more men out there with good haircuts. I felt energized by the online choices and several of the men I dated went on to be good friends. So I wasn’t dismissing the plethora of choice – and those gems I found within the rubble – as bad for me. Yet. But I did start to think I needed to slow down my consumption.
Schwartz goes on to say, “…sometimes choice is paralyzing, and sometimes it’s liberating, and we don’t know what determines which direction it’ll go in. So I don’t think we can say unequivocally that too much choice is bad, because we don’t know the limits to that. But in some circumstances, too much choice is bad.”
Like many things, it may just come down to different strokes for different folks. We continue to change as we age and I can say with some certainty that I will grow weary of my dating bonanza, just as I’ve grown weary of the dizzying choice of groceries available at the supermarket and now have Ocado deliver the same satisfying fare to my house each week. So I’ve taken a break; shut down the accounts. I’m staying home now and indulging in my favorite foods and getting my work done. I figure when this gets a bit dull, Ocado can switch things up for me: I can try What A Lotta Chocolate instead of Cookies and Cream. But I suspect, every once in awhile, I will really want to visit Waitrose again to see what’s new.