The quest for freedom has led to struggles throughout the ages, primarily for freedom to do as we wish, live where we want, and seek a future devoid of restrictions. But, as Erich Fromm saw it, it came with something we might find as restricting as those who would deny us our freedoms — anxiety.
Another way to view freedom is to gain access to our individual liberties and our civil rights in any country. But, in questioning freedom, Fromm saw a negative aspect, and I would dare to differ here. Anxiety can motivate us, and if we view it from that perspective, it becomes a powerful tool for our lives.
True, advertisers, perhaps not unwittingly, use anxiety to push us into making choices, especially in the market. One of my favorite aisles to illustrate this is the cereal aisle. How many different types of cereals are there in that aisle, and how do you pick one?
I know from prior experience in marketing that they have aimed everything at forcing your choices by using color, shelf placement, and certain words on the boxes. All of it has been carefully researched to optimize your purchases of a manufacturer’s products. Even which end of the aisle the product may be placed is considered.
A job I had years ago required that I go to separate states and follow consumers, almost always women, around the market, where I’d note whether they picked up an item, put it in their basket, or put it back on the shelf. As a psychologist, I know how flawed this approach is in terms of my effect on the shoppers. Consider how anxious they might have been and how much time they wouldn’t spend in the store. I might have had a negative effect.
Can you imagine being followed around the store by a woman with a clipboard marking it as you shop? It would affect shopping behavior. But market patterns were laid out according to how shoppers shopped, and designers laid out the food aisles accordingly. My clipboard markings were used to some extent here.
In effect, planners and marketing executives attempted to remove the anxiety of choice to ensure specific purchases. They intended to provide a sense of unrealized forced choice and a sense of stability devoid of the anxiety of choice. And it may work to a high degree.
But anxiety has also been viewed as providing a high degree of motivation, and if we remove it, is that beneficial to us? Yes, freedom presents a degree of uncertainty, and that may be why people flock to religions that restrict every freedom possible or to leaders who do the same to remove the anxiety of freedom.
Structure can be comfortable if inhibiting. We can choose to accept absolute rule or exercise our free will and, with it, the attendant anxiety to motivate us.