Freedom From Choice

freedom from choice

In 1817, Marie-Henri Beyle toured the Uffizi museum. Lost in a maze of galleries, the French novelist was paralyzed by indecision. His heart raced. His breathing was shallow and labored. His mind was completely disoriented. He couldn't move. Beyle eventually wrote about his experience under his pen name, Stendahl. In 1979, Italian psychiatrist Graziella Megherini coined the phrase 'Stendahl Syndrome' for people paralyzed by excessive choice. It's a concept bedeviling supermarkets, web pages and… carmakers.

For example, BMW's M5 is considered the ultimate sports sedan. And yet the uber-5er faces a bewildering range of operational decisions: three suspension, shifting and e-traction levels; two horsepower options and eleven gearbox modes. While a hard-core cadre of enthusiasts embrace the Bimmer's programmability, most newbies sit in the M5's driver's seat and… freeze. After overcoming their initial shock, they rely on one or two factory settings– or walk away thanking Gott in Himmel they own something a lot less complicated.

The M5's complexity reflects automakers' overly literal interpretation of America's favorite shibboleth: freedom of choice. Carmakers clearly believe that the more their products cater to each owner's personal preferences, the better. You only have to count the number of motors underneath a S-Class' seat– or tally-up the number of ways it can massage, heat or cool its occupant's hindquarters– to see the philosophy in action. And it's not just the luxury playas kissing ass. Even a humble Hyundai Elantra offers eight-way adjustable seats. This sort of multi-variable "feature creep" is spreading through the automotive landscape like electronic kudzu.

The personalization craze is based on a couple of false assumptions. For one thing, it assumes that people are different. As much as purple dinosaurs would have us believe otherwise, most humans share the same likes and dislikes. Put an Audi MMI interface in front of a wealthy, middle-aged man, and he'll use it (or not) the same way as any other wealthy, middle-aged man: completely ignoring 80% of its functions. If middle-aged men are your core clientele, confronting them with options they don't want or (worse) understand is an indisputably boneheaded idea.

The "options uber alles" movement also assumes that people enjoy experimentation. How do you decide when your M5's chair bolsters should deploy? Which suspension setting is best for the family on a road trip? Technophiles are comfortable "playing" with BMW's buttons until they achieve a suitable result. Regular Joes prefer to leave things as they are (rather than get lost inside an iDrive sub-menu). In both cases, psychological comfort depends on a precise balance between the amount of available choice and a person's ability to understand and evaluate the options. Today's luxury car salesmen spend twice as much time on customer deliveries– explaining functionality– than they did ten years ago. That's a sign of trouble, not progress.

Automotive Stendahl Syndrome isn't restricted to the human – vehicle interface. The industry itself is triggering buyers' instinctual freeze response. Customers must select from literally hundreds of models. Let's say a potential buyer restricts themselves to Ford products. They must then choose from one of eight brands: Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Mazda, Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover or Aston Martin. If they take a fancy to Volvo, they must then select a vehicle from eight models: S40, S60, S80, V50, V70, XC70, XC90 or C70. If they opt for an XC90, they then must decide on one of two engine configurations. And then there's the options list… Is it any wonder so many people buy a newer version of their existing whip, rather than face the prospect of Stendahl Syndrome?

Automakers looking to increase customer satisfaction and build their brands should buck the trend and implement a radical, counterintuitive strategy: less choice. First, they must only offer the options and features their core clients really need/want (erring on the side of minimalism). Second, they must make all in-car functions completely intuitive. Third, they must realize that customers are most comfortable choosing between two– count 'em two– options (e.g. heated seat: on or off). Fourth, they should never offer a customer more than three choices for adjusting an in-car device (e.g. driving character: comfort, sport or extreme).

Here's the really tough part: carmakers should only sell three models per brand. I know it sounds crazy, but the average luxury buyer has a better chance of naming the staff at their local Starbuck's than listing Cadillac's entire lineup. By the same token, back in the days when a VW was a Beetle and a bus, the automaker's image was far stronger than it is today. By simplifying their products and scything their range, carmakers would eliminate Stendahl Syndrome, making it easier for customers to choose and enjoy their car. Any way you look at it, that's got to be a good thing.

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  • MaintenanceCosts There's no mystery anymore about how the Japanese took over the prestige spot in the US mass market (especially on the west coast) when you realize that this thing was up against the likes of the Fairmont, Citation, and Volaré. A massacre.
  • MaintenanceCosts Chevy used to sell almost this exact color on the Sonic, Bolt, and Camaro, as "Shock." And I have a story about that.I bought my Bolt in 2019. Unsurprisingly the best deal came from the highest-volume Bolt dealer in my very EV-friendly area. They had huge inventory; I bought right when Chevy started offering major incentives, and the car had been priced too high to sell well until that point.Half the inventory had a nice mix of trims and colors, and I was able to find the exact dark-gray-on-white Premier I wanted. But the real mystery was the other half of the inventory. It was something like 40 cars, all Shock on black, split between LT and Premier. You could get an additional $2000 or so off the already low selling price if you bought one of them. (Neither my wife nor I thought the deal worth it.) The cars were real and in the flesh; a couple were out front, but behind the showroom, there was an entire row of them.When I took delivery, I asked the salesman how on earth they had ended up with so many. He told me in a low voice that a previous sales manager had screwed up order forms for a huge batch of cars that were supposed to be white, and that no one noticed until a couple transporters loaded with chartreuse Bolts actually showed up at the dealer. Long story short, there was no way to change the order. They eventually sold all the cars and you still see them more often than you'd expect in the area.
  • EAM3 Learned to drive in my parents' 1981 Maxima. Lovely car that seemed to do everything right. I can still hear the "Please turn off the lights" voice in my head since everyone wanted a demo of the newfangled talking car. A friend of the family had a manual transmission one and that thing was fun!
  • FreedMike That wagon is yummy.
  • Syke Thanks, somehow I missed that.