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Toughest choice for consumers often is choice

The upside of 21st century life? The dizzying array of cool electronic gadgets we have that let us do just about anything anytime and anywhere we want.

The downside of 21st century life? Having to wade through that dizzying array of cool electronic gadgets whenever the ones we already have go on the fritz.

Call it technostress, or even technoparalysis: that overwhelming, queasy feeling some of us get whenever we’re forced to finally replace a cell phone, computer or TV.

Does Sherrie Irvine ever feel it? “Oh yes,” she answers during a recent visit to a Verizon Wireless store . Irvine was there to replace a deceased cell phone, and admits she dreaded having to wade through all the phones and features that are available to her.

“You never know what is the best,” Irvine says. “And half the time, I’ve found that a lot (of new phones) break within a year or two, which is extremely frustrating for the money you spent.”

“I don’t think I’m ready for the 21st century,” she jokes.

Irvine is not alone, says Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory and social action in the psychology department of Swarthmore College.

“We’ve always had choices,” notes Schwartz, author of “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.” But, now, “we have megachoices. Go to the grocery store, and now there are 175 salad dressings. That’s a new phenomenon.”

As buying decisions go, choosing a salad dressing is fairly innocuous. But consider having to choose a new prescription drug plan, or a place to invest your life’s savings or retirement money, or even, Schwartz says, one medical treatment over another for a serious illness.

In fact, despite our general more-is-better American mindset, facing an excessive number of choices in the marketplace doesn’t necessarily make us happier or more satisfied consumers.

“On a rational level, you would think having more choices would make for a better situation,” says David Copeland, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Unfortunately, that’s not really how we function.”

There are studies that indicate that, at least up to a point, the more choices we have, the less satisfied we are with whatever decision we make, Copeland says. For the average adult, there seems to be a “peak somewhere in the realm of six to 12 choices to whatever the object might be — like chocolate or whatever,” he says. “Get below that and people aren’t as happy, and get above that and people aren’t as happy.”

Obviously, satisfaction with a choice will vary with such considerations as personal preference — a gadget-minded consumer may love having 35 cell phones to choose from, while someone else would hate that but love choosing from among 30 chocolate bars — and even the nature of the item itself.

For example, there is evidence that consumers prefer more choices than fewer when it comes to picking out a car, Copeland says. “But when it comes to picking out the best prescription drug plan through employers, people want fewer choices.”

Why do some people panic at having to make a complex choice? Because, Copeland says, “we don’t want the personal responsibility of having made the wrong decision.

“When you have an excess number of choices, people’s happiness and satisfaction decreases because you have the feeling that, ‘I made the wrong choice.’ “

Which brings us back to cell phones, computers, fancy TVs and other high-tech now-necessities. While such purchases aren’t life-or-death matters, they can be complex, and the consequences of making a wrong decision is exacerbated by higher price tags (a large-screen HD TV), long commitments (cell phone contracts) and the inevitability that what seems a good bargain now will become a less-good one six months from now (just about everything).

In technology, “better, faster, cheaper is the way it goes,” Schwartz explains. “So you know that, whatever you’re buying, you will make a mistake because if you waited two weeks, you could have done better.”

Also stressful, Schwartz says, is that “the complexity of these devices far exceeds any consumer’s ability to comprehend. So to make a good decision on (one) is impossible, except by luck.”

One way we tend to deal with too-many choices is to arbitrarily limit our own options. Copeland notes that car buyers take this tack when, for example, they focus more on, say, a car’s color over its gasoline mileage, or vice versa.

“People usually rely on shortcuts, so they limit the number of traits or characteristics to get through making their decision,” he says, even if what they choose to weigh more heavily “may not be a rational choice.”

Consumers often seek the help of somebody they trust to wade through, and winnow down, options, Schwartz says, even though that person may not be an expert.

The companies that sell complex gadgets aren’t necessarily unaware of the effect megachoices can have on megafreaked consumers.

For instance, Lance Hymas, retail district manager for Verizon Wireless, says the company has adopted several measures aimed at making cell phone choices not quite as intimidating. Grouping phones in sections by type — smart phones, basic phones, multimedia phones — is one way to make it easier for customers to see at least broad options.

Then, Hymas says, sales representatives are trained to ask customers a series of questions to pare down the possibilities.

“We find a lot of times that knowledge is power, so every one of our stores carries live phones that (customers) can touch and use,” he says.

Finally, before customers leave, they’re given a basic tutorial on the phone they’ve selected, Hymas says. They also may choose to take online tutorials, and smart phone buyers may attend once-a-month workshops in local stores.

During his recent visit to Verizon, Paul Rasmuson wasn’t experiencing any particular phone-related stress. But, because he’s a couple of months into a search for a new TV, he appreciates how confusing ample choice can be.

“There are so many new things coming up” with TVs, he says.

But, ironically enough, the same technology that can cause so much stress also can offer a remedy for it: Rasmuson says he has been going online, taking advantage of websites that compare TVs and offer reviews and comments from other buyers.

Buying a TV is “more complicated” than it used to be, Rasmuson admits. But, he figures it’s “nicer” than it used to be, because “I don’t have to deal with the salesperson. And you’re on your own time. You’re not pressured.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

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