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Freedom of choice // Some experts say number of decisions has gotten out of hand

Americans can choose from more than 25,000 items on their supermarket shelves, tune in as many as 53 television stations, buy any of 11,092 magazines or periodicals and be solicited by tens of thousands of special-interest and public-interest groups. It's freedom of choice, the American way.

But an increasing number of sociologists and other experts are beginning to believe that the marketplace may have outsmarted itself.

Americans, they say, are becoming overwhelmed, even paralyzed, by all these choices, and some experts say that the apathy is spilling over into other areas of daily life.

"Choices do not make life easier; they make it more difficult, for all of us," said Dr. David A. Goslin, president of the American Institute for Research in Washington, which conducts behavioral and social-science research. "As social scientists, we know that with an increase in choices, people tend to become more anxious."

That comes as no surprise to Tom D. Franklin, 22, of San Diego.

In search of a cup of coffee recently at Quincy Market in Boston, which houses 37 restaurants and food stands, he was confronted with 54 types of beans and roasts. "When I saw all the choices, I was intimidated," he said.

The average working adult makes hundreds of conscious and unconscious decisions every day, said Dr. Peter Suedfeld, dean of graduate studies and professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

He studies adaptation to challenging and stressful environments and events, including those involved in high-level political decision-making.

"Over time, many of these decisions become autonomic," he said.

Scientific and technological advances also have significantly increased the number of decisions that individuals must make today, as compared with 25 years ago, Goslin said.

Such an increase may leave people stymied by relatively trivial matters.

Laboratory tests on men and animals conducted in the 1950s and '60s, which are cited by Alvin Toffler in the 1970 book Future Shock, demonstrated that reaction time slows as the number of choices increases.

"There is a misunderstanding by marketers in our culture about what freedom of choice is," said Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of numerous books on the impact of mass media. "In the market, it is equated with multiplying choice. This is a misconception. If you have infinite choice, people are reduced to passivity."

At Vons, a supermarket chain in Los Angeles that calls itself "the more store," consumers shopping for cereal face 200 different products.

Many cope with the variety by focusing only on what is familiar.

Rosemary Flores Vega, a nurse, said she buys only Cheerios or shredded wheat for herself or her husband; Stephanie Bakki, a mother of three, sticks with Raisin Bran or shredded wheat.

No scientific study has measured the impact that increased choices have on the collective psyche.

But some experts cite anecdotal evidence that they say suggests a link with apathy about social ills, global events, even local elections.

"The American public, by the nature of the assault they take from commercial ads, have become very skeptical," said Glenn Totten of Struble-Totten Communications, a Democratic media consulting firm in Washington. "They don't take claims in commercials very seriously.

That same obstacle is in the way of a political candidate who wants to get a message across."

After the Berlin Wall was breached, broadcasters wondered at the low audience ratings for television coverage of the event.

But people like Nadine Threadgill had other things on their minds. "I get home, and my mailbox is filled with little envelopes from the cancer fund, the wildlife fund, the alumni fund asking for money," said Ms. Threadgill, a receptionist who lives in Silver Springs, Md. "There's the homeless problem, the drug problem, the AIDS crisis, the abortion issue. And then, somebody wants me to get worked up about Eastern Europe. Forget it."

Theologians in the United States say the proliferation of choices is crowding out fundamental human needs and fueling an interest in orthodoxy.

"There is a religious desire for simplicity," said the Rev. Robert Paul Mohan, professor of ethics and theology at Catholic University in Washington. "We feel that people have been sidetracked by too many things. Our main goals are to find an authentic sharing kind of humanity. Love, loyalty, generosity, friendship - these are the things that are at the core of civilized life. But we are deflected constantly by the sheer multitude of duties, solicitation and multitude of options. There is something that is being denied in all of this."

The Rev. Thomas Hopko of St. Vladimir's Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y., a Russian Orthodox scholar who specializes in the area of will and the place of choice in it, said: "As Americans we feel the more choices you have the freer you are. We have this radical idea that if I don't make an absolute, free choice about everything, then I'm not a real person; I surrender to someone else's power.

"Sooner or later people get tired of that and will do anything just not to make a choice at all," he continued. "We're seeing more people come into the Orthodox Church because here you are told what to do about everything, and they are so tired about having to decide everything in life . . ."

"The climate today is choices, choices, even in the church," said Rabbi Joseph Glaser, executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. "Things loosened up. When that happens, our options proliferate and become more complicated. The reaction to that in our shop is a drive toward simplicity."

In fact, the conference is currently revising the 800-page prayer book it published in 1975, the first new edition in 40 years, because parishioners complained it was "too much, too heavy and too thick."

"Our parishioners are telling us its too much choice," Rabbi Glaser said. "They are saying there is a value to memorized prayer."

Years ago, options were fewer. "A person went to school, got a job, married - and stayed married for better or worse - and raised children," Goslin wrote in 1985 in Transaction Social Science and

Modern Society magazine, published at Rutgers University. "A woman's place was in the home, and the home, for the most part, was not far from the place where one was raised. Widely accepted standards of morality and conduct governed much of our behavior.

"During the last 20 years much of that has changed," he continued. "Now we must make real choices: to marry, or not; to stay married, or not; to remarry, or not; to have children or not; to work or not; to live near one's family, or not."

Flora Radlow of Coney Island, N.Y., 74, speaks longingly of a time "in the '50s, when things were simpler."

In fact, variety entered the mass market in the 1920s, when the General Motors Corp., in conjunction with the Du Pont Co., began producing automobiles in different colors; until then black had been standard.

In the prosperous aftermath of World War II, a broad array of products was unleashed on the new households being formed by veterans.

Choices expanded further during the social and political upheaval that took place in the 1960s and '70s, an age of individualism fueled in the marketplace by an increasing flood of goods from abroad.

Deregulation also played a part. Ma Bell gave way to five competing long-distance telephone companies; someone wanting to fly from New York to Miami can now choose from nine airlines, up from four 10 years ago.

In a recent telephone interview, Toffler recalled an example in which variety was an end in itself.

When Future Shock was first published, the hardback book was printed in six colors.

While walking through an airport, Toffler overheard two elderly women talking about whether to buy the pink or the green copy for their husbands.

"They must have stood there 10 minutes trying to figure it out," Toffler recalled. "What difference did it make?

"But it's indicative of the real problem," he said. "We're spending so much time on trivial matters. The real issue is whether you're going to let someone else do your thinking for you, be totally wiped out by the choices in life, or are you going to say, 'This is the way of the world and some things don't matter much, so I'm going to focus on what's important' ?"

A consumer backlash is already seen in some segments of society.

"When we asked consumers last year to tell us the best and the worst television commercials, a number told us that they simply don't see them anymore," said Mona Doyle, president of Consumer Network, an organization in Philadelphia that does market research and consultation for the food industry. "They don't have to zap them by remote. They have tuned out mentally."

At the same time, she noted, they believe much less of what people say.

"My feeling is that this whole choice thing is an illusion," said Dr. Joan Gussow, professor of nutrition and education at Columbia University's Teachers College. "You go into a fast-food restaurant and they say: 'You can have this hamburger your way.' So now you get to choose whether to have tomato or onion. Big deal."