When I’m taking a break from work, I tell myself: just one episode of a sitcom, just one chapter of that new eBook, or just a couple of songs. Barring the fact that I should really be telling myself to drag my eyes away from a screen and take a walk, this situation poses another key problem: how do I choose? Almost invariably, when I check the time after clicking through various options, I realize that those 20-odd minutes I could have spent switching off my brain and laughing at a few silly jokes? I spent them searching for the perfect thing to watch.
I am not alone in my dilemma. A recent Nielsen survey found that media consumers aged 18 to 49 – probably the most desirable demographic for companies to capture – is the group “most susceptible to indecision (Nielsen.com) when it comes to consuming content. The Q1 Nielsen Audience Report said that adults aged 18 to 34 spent 9.4 minutes ruminating on what to consume. This number was 8.4 minutes for adults aged 35 to 49. In fact, Nielsen noted that nearly 30% of those aged 18 to 49 sometimes abandoned watching entirely if they were unable to find something they liked (Nielsen.com).
There has been extensive commentary on how Netflix’s offerings have led to choice paralysis among its viewers, with some even dubbing it the Netflix Effect. The idea that too many choices lead to indecision isn’t confined to the streaming era; it has previously been documented. A 2000 study conducted by Columbia and Stanford professors involved setting up tasting booths in a supermarket on two separate occasions. On one day, the booth had just six types of jam, while on the other day, it had 24 options. The researchers found that the number of people who sampled the jam did not significantly differ across the two days. However, while nearly 30% of consumers bought jam when there were six options, just 3% bought jam when there were 24 options (Iyengar and Lepper, 997).
Author Ian Leslie, bemoaning the multitude of options on Netflix and Spotify, wondered if choice paralysis could be an “ungrasped opportunity” (Newstatesman.com). “Now that I no longer have my cultural preferences handed down from on high by a few controllers of distribution and shapers of taste, I am utterly free to exercise my own preferences,” he wrote (Newstatesman.com). However, to Leslie – and to me – this sounds like being told to “follow my passion. What if I don’t know what my passion, or my preference, is?” (Newstatesman.com)
Researchers have found that the phrase “follow your passion” has “increased ninefold in English books…illustrating its rising centrality in popular culture” (Chen et al., 1412). At least one study seems to have illuminated the effect of millennials – born between 1981 and 1996 (Pewresearch.org) – being repeatedly told to find their passion. Bank of the West’s 2018 Millennial Study found that while all major age groups – baby boomers, Gen Xers, millennials – had similar definitions of the American dream, millennials stressed an aspect that the other groups did not consider nearly as important: pursuing their passion (Businessinsider.com). 47% of millennials included pursuing their passion as part of their American Dream, compared to 29% of Gen Xers, and 27% of baby boomers.
So, what happens when choice paralysis spills over into more critical areas of our lives? The concept of passion remains nebulous, and searching for it without critical examination can be unproductive at best, and disruptive at worst. Yale-NUS College psychology professor Paul O’Keefe talked to The Atlantic about a student “who jumps from lab to lab, trying to find one whose research topic feels like her passion” (Atlantic.com). “It’s this idea that if I’m not completely overwhelmed by emotion when I walk into a lab, then it won’t be my passion or my interest,” he said (Atlantic.com). This may sound familiar to those of us who spend more time looking for that perfect movie, or TV show to fit our mood, clicking through the numerous choices available to us through various streaming service subscriptions.
It is difficult to understand the ways in which the emphasis on finding one’s passion has affected the millennial generation. As an exceedingly privileged millennial who has mostly lived outside the US, but with extensive exposure to American popular culture, the fixation on passion has negatively affected the expectations I have of my career and my life. Often discontent, and worrying about an imaginary future where things will have finally fallen into place, I can empathize with the student who moved from lab to lab to find the perfect fit.
With the number of career options available to millennials having exploded in their lifetime, passion, whatever it may be, is hard to find. A 2016 Gallup study found that just 29% of millennials were engaged at work, compared to the national average of 34%. According to Gallup, millennials “are three times more likely than their elders to say they’ve changed jobs within the past year, 10 percentage points less likely to expect to be with their current employer in a year, the most likely to be looking for a new job, and the most open to whatever opportunities might come along” (Gallup.com). A sense of purpose was among the qualities that millennials prioritize. However, Gallup noted that millennials, who have been widely criticized for not committing to a job, “are as likely as anyone else to be loyal to their workplace,” provided their needs are fulfilled (Gallup.com).
O’Keefe of Yale-NUS is one of the three authors of a 2018 paper that posits that passion can be developed, instead of being found. The researchers conducted five studies that “examined implicit theories of interest – the idea that personal interests are relatively fixed (fixed theory) or developed (growth theory)” (O’Keefe et al., 1653). They discuss how the two different theories of interest inform different approaches in people. With the fixed theory of interest, people expect no challenges and “limitless motivation” (O’Keefe et al., 1663), and when this is not the case, “a fixed theory leads to a sharper decline in interest —as if the person comes to think that the topic was not his or her interest after all” (O’Keefe et al., 1663). Meanwhile, the growth theory prompts people to be interested in new fields, with the expectation that challenges may arise, “and to maintain greater interest” when they do (O’Keefe et al., 1663). Borrowing an age-old idiom, the authors note that pushing people “to find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry” O’Keefe et al., 1653). There is also the fact that not everyone can afford to drop their basket; passion is, more often than not, the pursuit of those with the social and economic privileges necessary to do so.
So, what does a controversial piece of advice regularly issued to new graduates have to do with Netflix-induced confusion? Of course, there are likely many who don’t grapple with this at all, be it picking out something on Netflix, or selecting a profession. You could chalk this up to my millennial angst, but I believe one situation can inform the other. Both tell the story of how an abundance of choice, coupled with our need to find the perfect option, has pitfalls. The anxiety of choosing a perfect career is reflected in our anxiety in selecting the ‘right’ thing to watch: both are rooted in our need to use our precious time in the best way possible. There is no easy approach to the former, though the concept of a fixed vs. growth theory of interest may provide a framework to follow. As for the latter, making a quick, low-stakes choice about what to watch may clear the way for more important decisions. Better yet, turn off your computer and go take that walk.
Chen, Patricia, Phoebe C. Ellsworth, Norbert Schwarz. “Finding a Fit or Developing It: Implicit Theories About Achieving Passion for Work,” Personality and Psychology Bulletin. 41, no. 10 (2015). 1411-1424.
“Choose It or Lose It: Media Choice Abounds, But Many Americans Stay With What They Know”. Nielsen Insights. July 1, 2019. https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/article/2019/choose-it-or-lose-it-media-choice-abounds-but-many-americans-stay-with-what-they-know/. Accessed December 9, 2019.
“Generations and Age”. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/topics/generations-and-age/. Accessed December 9, 2019.
Hoffower, Hillary. “People of all ages define the American Dream the same way – but millennials take it one step further,” Business Insider. July 19, 2018. https://www.businessinsider.com/millennials-baby-boomers-gen-x-define-the-american-dream-2018-7. Accessed December 10, 2019.
“How Millennials Want to Work and Live.” Gallup Workplace. May 10 2016. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/236477/millennials-work-life.aspx. Accessed February 28 2020.
Iyengar, Sheena S. and Mark R. Lepper, “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, no. 6 (2000). 995-1006.
Khazan, Olga. “’Find Your Passion’ Is Awful Advice,” The Atlantic, July 12, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/07/find-your-passion-is-terrible-advice/564932/. Accessed December 4, 2019.
Leslie, Ian. “Why endless TV and music options on Netflix and Spotify are leaving us paralyzed by choice”. New Statesman. February 6, 2019. https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2019/02/why-endless-tv-and-music-options-netflix-and-spotify-are-leaving-us-paralysed. Accessed December 4, 2019.
O’Keefe, Paul A., Carol S. Dweck, and Gregory M. Walton. “Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It?” Psychological Science, 29 no. 10 (2018). 1653-1664.