Nepal and the Jam Paradox

I finally got into podcasts. Among my favorites: Hidden Brain, an NPR podcast hosted by Shankar Vedantam. A few weeks ago, I heard one that really stuck with me.

Vedantam interviewed comedian, actor, and South Carolina homeboy Aziz Ansari, discussing his new book, Modern Love, which examines the ways dating has changed in the 21st century, what with the smartphones and the Tinder and the sexting. Have a listen. It’s a fascinating 30 minutes.

Among other things,Vedantam and Ansari discuss choice (skip to the 10:45 mark to hear for yourself). Online dating apps present users with thousands upon thousands of potential encounters. Choice is good, right? According to Ansari, 1 in 3 of today’s marriages started online. But what of the many, many encounters that do not develop into lasting, meaningful relationships? That is to say, most of them?

Ansari cites the Jam Paradox, a study conducted by social psychologist Barry Schwartz (great TED Talk here). In this study, consumers were invited to purchase a jar of jam at the store. One store, very few jam choices. Another store, a typical supermarket, many, many jam choices.

Results: greater choice led to uncertainty (what if it’s the wrong jam?), which led to paralysis (screw this, I’ll get the jam tomorrow). Further, consumers who did make a purchase felt ultimately dissatisfied by the time they got home.

Why did I choose grape jam when I really wanted apricot? Why didn’t I get the organic? Did I spend too much? Is Smuckers an ethical company?

I made the wrong decision! 

Schwartz proposes that when we make a consumer decision, given a wide range of options from which to choose, and that choice leaves us feeling discontent, regret, even depression (Why did I paint this room with ivory daikon? I should’ve picked the non-glossy desert almond), it’s because we blame ourselves for the choice we made.

In situations where choice is limited (I can only afford this one particular brand, this is the only gas station for the next 50 miles, everyone wants Chinese and this is the only Chinese place in town), discontent, regret, and depression do not feature as prominently, because we can blame outside factors. We are not in control of making the decision, therefore we are faultless.

Schwartz sums it up nicely: “The secret to happiness is… low expectations.”

Which brings us to Nepal. No secret, Nepal is considered “developing world.” However, I would say that “developing” is an indistinct term. Nepal was wrecked by quakes in April and May, so in some sectors, you might optimistically say they’re “redeveloping.”

Following the natural disasters, Nepal slipped further and further into a political disaster, resulting in blockades on essential supplies ranging from dry goods to petrol to cooking and heating fuel. Winter was especially difficult. So in some ways, pessimistically speaking, Nepal is “non-developing,” or to the truly cynical, “unraveling.”

Then again, maybe Nepal transcends the concept of “developing” altogether. My friend Suraj recently posted this meme on social media:

Screen Shot 2015-12-05 at 12.14.47

It’s true. In America, we get militant about everything from Black Friday sales to the sale of assault rifles, from the War on Christmas to the War on Terror. Some things are worth taking to the streets, sometimes we do need to yell “STOP THE PRESSES!” But how much of our fighting is about survival and how much is about ensuring the convenience of choice? And how much choice is really that convenient?

Every morning, my mailbox is hit with the latest Epicurious feed. Back in the US, I’d read a recipe for say, soba and maitake mushrooms in soy broth. I’d think, “Holy shit. I need to make this! Today!” Off to the local Bi-Lo for the basics, then 5 Moons Asia Market for the complicated stuff, then off to Greer, one county over, to meet my mushroom guy. All in my hybrid fuel vehicle. Maybe a stop by Zaxby’s for a chicken wing fix, so as to not go hungry while shopping for food.

My world is different now. Wide swaths of empty space on supermarket shelves: not uncommon. My Epicurious feed hits, and I’m like, “Mushrooms? Not in season. Not making that. Miso paste? Takes an hour to get to the Japan store. Not happening. Beef tenderloin? Oh, please.”

In short, figuring out the week’s menu is a far simpler process. Do I miss having 17 mustards to choose from? Yes. I would kill just to find dijon out here! But there’s also something inherently satisfying in saying, “I made this, using only what’s available.”

I can dismiss half the recipes immediately, since my kitchen has no oven.

Many things are like that here. I used to suffer incessantly from FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). IIHII (It Is How It Is) upstaged FOMO sometime in my first month here. When there’s only one place to go for a beer, one place to go for live music, one place to go for a decent meal — and often it’s all the same place — IIHII wins the night.

Surely, my return to the US this summer, with its CostCo and paved roads and abundance of fast food options, will feel like a Carnival cruise. But at the same time, I anticipate a heavier-than-normal dose of reverse culture shock. Constant awe at endless drinkable water that flows from the tap. Absence of burning garbage stench. Cars that stay in their lane.

And jam. Oh, how I shall linger in Aisle 3, staring at all that glorious jam.