Freedom of choice isn’t always freedom

My wellies have split, so yesterday I walked Porthtowan beach with my left foot sloshing about in seawater as warm as amniotic fluid. I loved my wellies, and am very sad to have to replace them. Apart from the fact that they are beautiful, what I most loved about them was that I didn’t have to choose them – my mum chose them for me – and I’ve come to realise that I hate making choices.

wellies 3I realised this after spending two hours (possibly more) inspecting wellies online. What a total waste of time; time that I could have spent pinning down where human consciousness stems from or finally sorting out a viable sustainable alternative to oil and thereby saving the world. But instead I spent that precious fraction of my life comparing prices, reviews, aesthetics and practicality of rubber footwear.

In the version of the past that I remember, when one needed wellies, one went to a shoe shop where they stocked one type of welly in a choice of dull green or black. Fancy ones had ‘Dunlop’ written on the side, but that was it. And they cost about £3.99.

Today I discovered that the welly situation in the West is very, very different now. Wellies have spread and mutated and developed all sorts of confusing added extras which resulted in  my total failure to actually buy any. I became overwhelmed and – I admit it – very slightly stressed by all the choices. If there were only dull green or black all-the-same wellies in the world, I would have purchased a pair in about 2 minutes flat and gone about the rest of my day without a care in the world knowing that shortly I would be able to walk the dog without developing Trench Foot. But all this choice leads to brain-addling indecision.

Plain wellies, to be fair, do still exist. Here they are.

basic wellyAnd if I wasn’t a spoilt brat Westerner, I would just buy these and get on with working out if there is a finite upper bound on the multiplicities of the entries greater than 1 in Pascal’s triangle.

But, how can I just contendedly buy those when THESE exist?


If I bought these, just looking at them would make me happy every day. But, apart from the fact that they are nearly £30 more than the dull ones, would I feel embarrassed sporting the ‘Joules’ logo on the front of my legs? Probably. Joules is  brand that yells “I AM QUIRKY MIDDLE CLASS! I RECYCLE AND OWN A SCRUFFY MONGREL! I EAT QUINOA AND HAVE MISMATCHED CHINA! I GROW MY OWN ARTICHOKES!” So maybe I need something a little more understated. Maybe these:

hunterThese appear quite unassuming, but they are branded too, and this brand is only pretending to be understated. People who wear Hunter wellies (especially dirty ones) are saying/trying to say, “These wellies have been in the family for generations, you know. My great, great grandfather wore them shooting with Lord Wilberforce of Durham. Have you met my labrador, Monty?” PLUS they cost nearly £80, so sod that. I read a review of these where someone had written, “I love my Hunters so much I’ve bought some for my husband and both the children”… There are people in the world who will spend £320 on rubber footwear. I am not one of those.

I can honestly say that I would not care ONE BIT if there were no choice whatsoever in the realm of the wellington boot. I wouldn’t feel the need to wield a banner proclaiming that we are being oppressed by a lack of variety in waterproof footwear. Or kettles. Or cars. Or irons. Or electric sanders. Or washing powder. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has stood in a  supermarket being trolley-bashed repeatedly while staring at the variety of washing powders stretching as far as the horizon both ways and sobbing quietly to myself, “I just want one that cleans clothes.” WHAT CRITERIA are we supposed to use to decide which one to buy? The cheapest? The prettiest? Names we have heard of? Smell? Word-of-mouth? Just PASS ME ONE and I’ll leave quietly. Same thing happened when I was buying a second hand car. They were ALL CARS. They all had steering wheels and exhaust pipes. How was I supposed to CHOOSE between them? Does it drive? Can I sit down in it? Does it stop again when I’ve finished? It happens in restaurants too. Apart from anything with seafood in, I could probably eat any of it. I usually deal with the problem by  waiting until the waiter looks at me expectantly, see what leaps into my brain, and order that. I wish they would just issue me with a meal. So long as there’s a cup of tea at some point, I’ll be happy.

When spouse and I became parents for the first time – 22 years ago – we were (cringe) Anarchists, and we believed that our young son should be given freedom to make his own choices in everything. I still believe this, I suppose, but what I didn’t see then is that we’re not really equipped to make free choices without substantial guidance until we’re much older (and in my case, never). The amount of free choice we gave him, we eventually realised, caused him great stress because he would panic even over seemingly trivial choices – if I choose this one, then I might regret it and realise that the other option was better – too much choice used to freeze his faculties with anxiety and then cause him to enjoy his final choice less than he would have under different circumstances.

I don’t know if it’s possible to draw any conclusions from this and my own experiences with choice-based distress, but I wonder if the fact that the doctrine of freedom of choice is used everywhere nowadays is really as healthy as we like to believe it is. Certainly in the area of consumerism it can be pretty distasteful, and in education I believe that choice has been at least partly responsible for a big decline in real learning as opposed to qualification-collecting. But that’s a whole other story.

While I was searching for (and failing to find) an entertaining image for this post, I found this TED talk instead. I think Barry Schwartz says it much better than I did. Damn him.

Oh, and I’d be grateful if someone could just choose some wellies for me. Thanks.

Image by
Image by

21 replies to “Freedom of choice isn’t always freedom

      1. I actually have the Dunlop wellies you mention. They have served me over five years of dog walks but I vividly recall the indecision when I walked into Millets and found there were both green AND black ones.

  1. This blogpipe is something with which I identify with greatly. Your description of your son’s anxiety over the tyranny of choice is something that makes me go, “Oh, I totally get that.” And I do. Well, I did. I used to fret terribly over thoughts of what I was missing out on and how much I regretted it after making a semi-important decision. But the thing I’ve now concluded is that the hardest part of any decision is living with it.

    We’re all faced with choices to which we can’t be certain of a correct answer all the time: “Should you take that job and leave your current one even though you’re quite content?” “Should you end your troubled relationship even though you may regret it when you’re alone?” “Should you stop using Firefox and just use Chrome from now on?” We’re taught from a very early age that there are right and wrong answers. Well, sometimes there’s not. There’s just one unknown versus another. And I can’t help but think that one of the most important moments in a person’s development is when they can accept their decisions and live with them, appreciating the good ones and not perpetually regretting the bad ones.

    So, I guess what I’m saying is that you should buy some wellies you like and not dwell on the ones you don’t buy because you’ll have a nice time with your new wellies and that’s really the only thing that matters.

  2. I think you should start a campaign to BAN MUSIC FESTIVALS – that’s why it’s all gone wrong on the welly front! 😉

    But I’m in total agreement with the emptiness of many choices theory. It all adds up to far more anxiety, such as you’re experiencing. But try this: imagine you’re a dot on a piece of paper. Around you there is a line encircling you about 4 inches away. Where would the wellies you’ve selected appear on this diagram? ….to be continued…!

    I listened to the talk, very good.

    Hahaha I was laughing at your description of branded boots – now we don’t have any real community we have to let each other know who we are from the outside. Even choosing to opt out is saying something…like I’M OPTING OUT, SEE, THAT’S THE KIND OF PERSON I AM. GENUINE, HONEST AND NOT GULLIBLE

    1. I was thinking about festivals a lot during my welly exploration. Lots of wellies are described as “festival wellies” on ebay. And there are articles all over the Internet about what kinds of mascara and hair products you need for your festival-going beauty regime. In my day you’d have been laughed off site if you were wearing expensive wellies and had a beauty routine. In my day. Ha. I am 100.

      I am entertained by your circle way of making decisions. It’s too late though, I bought some wellies today. I went to Cornwall Farmers and swooned over some rich red Hunters which were £70. Then I went to Carnon Downs Garden Centre and bought some dull green ones for just over a tenner.

      I think I must have unconsciously gone for the… I’M OPTING OUT, SEE, option.

      We all fit in boxes.

  3. My dad used to say, “Don’t pay any attention, they’re just trying to sell you something.” The boots you chose are perfect because they will keep your feet dry. Mission accomplished. Oh, and they don’t say anything. Boots can’t talk.

      1. Okay, I’ve tidied up the kitchen, had a shower, and am still plagued by what I fear is the haughty tone of my earlier comment. Please forgive me. I don’t even really think that. I know nothing about boots, decision making, or anything at all. Except that I really, really like your blog.

      2. It didn’t seem haughty to me at all, please don’t worry! It seemed sensible and down to earth. Sensible and down to earth is a trait I very much appreciate in humans. Thank you lots for reading and commenting x

Leave a Reply to throbbingsofnoontide Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
close-alt close collapse comment ellipsis expand gallery heart lock menu next pinned previous reply search share star