Tuesday, 21 May 2024

Opinion | The Tyranny of ‘The Best’

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By Rachel Connolly

Ms. Connolly is a writer and critic.

Let me tell you about my friend Dan Symons. There is a kind of person who finds the idea of seeking out “the best” incredibly enticing, on an almost spiritual level. The kind of person who genuinely enjoys perusing articles like “the nine best hair dryers of 2023,” who is overcome with clammy dread at the idea of drinking in a bar with only a four-star rating on Google, who, in order to plan a weekend getaway, requires a prolonged and extensive operation that involves several spreadsheets. You know the type. Maybe you even are the type.

Dan is that kind of person. He is also from California (perhaps not a coincidence that this is the home of both the eternal quest for self-optimization and the internet ecosystem that underpins the explosion in ratings culture), works in tech and has a keen appreciation for the finer things in life. He is known throughout our friend group for his fastidiously curated lists of restaurants, bars and even specific menu items; his near refusal to venture into establishments that are anything less than excellent; and his hours spent trawling reviews for everything from mini fridges to trail shoes. When I questioned him on a rumor that I heard recently, that he had been freezing packets of “the best butter” to bring back from France, he confirmed it was true.

Dan may be an extreme case, but a dampened version of his instinct permeates our culture. If it didn’t, the raft of articles solemnly decreeing this year’s superlative vacuum cleaners simply would not exist. I had been wondering about where this culture of ratings and rankings came from and how it came to take over our lives; how even the least exciting consumer choices are framed in terms of elusive state-of-the-art options; and, conversely, how necessarily subjective things (novels, colleges, where to live) are increasingly presented as consumer choices for which there is an objective “best.”

I thought Dan could shed some light on what the pursuit of “the best” really means. But when I asked him, what I learned was that the motivation behind his “quest for the best” wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t about snobbery, or even, really, self-optimization.

“I think the really important thing to me — which is probably not a healthy thing — is I want to make sure the people I’m with have the best time possible,” Dan told me. “And this comes down to not just going to the restaurant, but even ordering as well. Like, ‘Are you sure you want to get that dish? Based on the other things we’re getting, is that the right thing to get?’ It extends through the whole meal.” To me it actually sounds, instead, as if Dan is trying to guarantee something closer to happiness. But can happiness really be found in a packet of butter?

Rankings, of course, are nothing new. Sight and Sound has put out a list of greatest films every 10 years since 1952. The U.S. News & World Report college rankings were first published in 1983. (It will probably surprise nobody that this year’s top three are Princeton, M.I.T. and Harvard.) Rolling Stone released its first list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” in 2003. Some version of the “hottest new restaurants of the year” could be found in local newspapers and magazines for decades — not to mention the best dentists, doctors, schools. These have always provoked conversation, backlash, letters to the editor.

But over the past 20 years, the internet gave us more and more ways to make ratings of our own, rather than just objecting to or agreeing with those handed down by editors. Online reviews first appeared around 1999, on sites like eBay. Yelp was created in 2004 to help people find good local businesses. Google reviews followed in 2007. These are now among the first places where people look when trying to find practically any business or service. And participating in these rankings can feel like one of the demands of the responsible consumer: If you go to an emerging small business, it’s now normal for someone to ask you to help it out by filling out a Google review. (I myself have left giddy tributes to my beloved hairdresser across the internet.)

Listicles proliferated as a kind of content that was easy to produce, easy to attract attention to, easy to sell ads against. In the heyday of BuzzFeed, the listicle tended to take the form of “50 times baby pandas were the cutest,” but with the advent of affiliate links, the likes of New York magazine’s The Strategist and The New York Times’s very own Wirecutter use them to rank all manner of consumer goods. The best easy-to-assemble tents, the 30 softest midrange nightgowns, the 17 smoothest razors under $50, the top seven waterproof briefcases.

There are best-of lists of less concrete things, too: the 100 best novelists of the past 100 years; rich lists; the 30 under 30. It’s everywhere. And it can start to feel like the logical way to organize even highly personal information.

Some of us have even started listicle-ing ourselves. I recently spoke to my trusted adviser on all things Gen Z, my brother Ryan, to get an idea of how ratings culture has influenced those who have grown up completely immersed in it. It’s worse than I suspected.

Ryan told me about a recent conversation at his workplace. Over lunch, he and his colleagues were sharing stories about the proliferation of spreadsheets and ratings systems. One of the women described a friend who kept a spreadsheet with her own personalized ratings for everything from TV shows to recipes. “But probably the most jarring one was one she had made for her sexual partners,” Ryan said. “Most people around the table were kind of aghast.” But then another woman said she does the same thing.

Even for those of us who don’t relate to Dan Symons — much less keep a spreadsheet of everyone we have slept with — rankings and lists still have a use: They help us make sense of our impossibly vast consumer landscape.

There is a way of talking about the psychedelic, hysterical effect of the information glut produced by the internet that tends to exaggerate the nefariousness of certain elements — like repeatedly being shown advertisements for things you’ve already bought — while minimizing how chaotic and messy it all feels. You could, for example, say that these lists are a product of “ratings derangement syndrome” and then say something like “In a world where our tech overlords manipulate their distraction vortex to shovel us into the slobbering maw of capitalism, ratings offer the illusion of taking back a semblance of control.”

Maybe. But to me, anyway, the experience of shopping for a hair dryer online feels less like being a pawn in a Matrix-esque mind-control operation and more like being trapped inside a box of plastic toys that have all been wound up so they constantly chatter and clatter against one another. The reality is I just want to spend as little time as possible in that box, while also hopefully buying something that won’t break the second time I use it. Best-of lists and rankings can seem like a simple solution to this problem.

There are a lot of areas where people don’t feel as if they have expertise, and ratings “get rid of that feeling of not being competent,” Rick Larrick, a professor of management and organization at Duke University, told me.

Dr. Larrick has studied consumers’ tendency to trust rankings and, in particular, to chase “the best.” He has found that people put a strange amount of faith in this. “As soon as you put a rank on things,” even something like toilet cleaner, “people’s preference for the top-ranked one increases substantially, by around 20 percent,” he said. “There is something about the comfort of using the simple differentiation between one and two. The ranks make it easy to make the decision, and then there’s some feeling to being able to clearly tell yourself that you got the best one.”

I’d venture that not many people (possibly not any people) are able to tell the difference between the top toilet cleaner and the second best — or even the fifth or sixth. This suggests that the appeal of the best is not really about a simple difference in the quality of the product, but more about a feeling: of reassurance, maybe; of having won, having got the right thing.

Dan’s proclivities would place him squarely as “a maximizer,” a category of consumer invented by Barry Schwartz, an emeritus professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and the author of “The Paradox of Choice,” which examines the detrimental side of endless consumer options. Dr. Schwartz defines people who are happy to settle for something that will probably be pretty good (a restaurant with above average, but not excellent, ratings; the third song they come to on a playlist; the midpriced toaster on the first page of Amazon) as “satisficers” and those who search exhaustively for the best version as “maximizers.” (Many people who are generally satisficers will have certain things that bring out their inner maximizer. In other words, we all have an inner Dan Symons.)

When I started thinking about this idea of bests, it was through the prism of my own disposition, that of a settler, someone of the “just get one that works” school of thought. When I see a broken toaster, I see an annoying problem to be solved as quickly as possible. But Dan sees an opportunity: to get something that works a little faster, which would perhaps be more aesthetically pleasing, or run smoother, or not break so easily, and thus, to make life just that tiny bit better, with the only cost being a small investment in time spent doing research.

But these impulses have more in common than it seems. Both are attempts to solve the overwhelming consumer landscape facilitated by the internet. One (mine) is to try to engage with it as little as possible, essentially to run away and hide; the other is to greet the possibilities it offers with open arms, treating it as a challenge that can be won. One instinctively makes more sense to me, but then the other probably guarantees the better toaster. I wonder, though, if the better toaster promises something bigger. And in that case, can the better toaster ever really be enough? And what about when we’re talking about something bigger, more significant, more subjective, more human than a toaster?

The people I know who broadly seem most content with their lives have adopted the satisficer’s mind-set. When my hairdresser (a man of infinite wisdom) suggested I get a heat protection spray and I asked which one, he imparted some advice in this vein: “Oh, it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “Just don’t spend £3, but don’t spend £25 either.” (The latter is the price of the brand the salon sells.) “Nobody really needs that. Spend around £7, that should be all right. Yes, always stick to the midrange. I should be a salesman!” He laughed. “Although not for the one we actually sell.”

Dr. Schwartz goes further: He has found that those who are on the higher end of the maximizing scale not only have a harder time making decisions but also are then less satisfied with the decisions they do make. They’re also more likely to be borderline clinically depressed, he told me. “So it’s really not doing anyone a favor,” he said.

But the sensible attitude — as obvious as it may sound — can be hard to put into practice. Or maybe it’s easier to put into practice with hair spray than it is with, say, a “perfect vacation” or the “optimal time to retire.”

As I was thinking about all of this, I remembered a family vacation I went on when I was about 15, before seemingly everything was planned using smartphones and TripAdvisor. An elderly relative had saved up the money he was paid as a priest (I know, I grew up in Ireland) and gave it to my parents, who took us to Rome. My dad had meticulously plotted out our meals, but as we traipsed from restaurant to restaurant in the blazing heat, we repeatedly found that they were all closed: His guidebook was out of date; it was the height of summer and the city was dead. My dad would respond by having a meltdown in some piazza, then regain composure and select another guidebook recommendation. At the time, I found this maddening. I just wanted to eat something and then slink off to spend hours walking around and, perhaps, drink wine by a fountain near some Italian boys.

In hindsight, I have realized we were both after essentially the same thing: We both saw our trip as a rare opportunity and we wanted to squeeze as much out of it as possible.

Out-of-date guidebooks are long gone, but many of us now take a “my dad in Rome” attitude to vacations — fastidiously planning meals and excursions that can’t possibly be missed, to insulate ourselves from the sense we might be wasting any of the experience. Spontaneity can feel risky when we all have constant, easy access to the internet, ostensibly a flawless, infinite guidebook. But we can forget that feeling — happiness, smugness and satisfaction mixed with relief — of finding something really great by accident.

It’s true that searching long enough for something can make the fantasy version — the version with which you’d be happy — seem more and more perfect in the abstract, in such a way that it drifts farther and farther away. It’s human nature to want more, and better. Indulging this instinct can push us toward better options, to a point, and from then on hopelessly feed a sense of want. I see this most vividly in online dating, where optimizing everyone’s power to search for a partner seems to have caused more disappointment and loneliness than anything else.

It’s a sentiment that has the folksy feel of a Sunday school teaching, but still, part of having a good life is learning to be happy with what you have. As Dr. Schwartz put it: “We mistakenly think it is a treasure hunt. And it’s not a treasure hunt. It’s more like treasure creation.”

I find the sense of total directionlessness that is suggested by Googling something like “what is the best number of kids to have?” bizarre. But if people are earnestly using information like this to make their life choices, I would venture that this is because of a sense that those answers really do exist and the internet has made them easy to find. People have always felt lost, but the search for quantifiable, certified answers is now created by the existence of the answers themselves: a perfect number of wedding guests; the right place to live; the best age to be alive (it’s 36). All suggest sureness in a world that feels confusing. It always has, but the answer to this perhaps used to be praying. That never guaranteed results.

The “perfect” restaurant means Dan will have the best time with his friends; for me, finding the perfect hairdresser (and yes, I do think he’s perfect and I discovered him only after years of following disappointing recommendations) feels like a guarantee of optimum beauty and glamour.

As I talked to more and more people about the quest for the best, I realized that this seems to be true for most of them. One friend explained to me how the false promises of a sportswear brand’s marketing exemplified the fruitlessness of a “quest for the best” anything — only to disappear into another room and return with a freshly delivered pair of its leggings, to show me the false promises up close. Lots of people could be cynical about buying into the promise of a better, brighter life offered by the best version of something, while still sort of hoping it was true. This is not to say that we are powerless to resist a trap coldly set by capitalism or that adults can’t engage rationally with marketing. But we all have our weaknesses and our fantasies.

Of course, the idea that a certain type of running leggings would make your life better is ridiculous. The same is true of tacos or mini fridges — or vacation sunsets. Or any other number of things which are perhaps only marginally different in quality or offer a difference we aren’t sophisticated enough to appreciate.

When we grapple to exert control over these relatively small things, we are seeking to exert some agency over something that feels important to us. Because the idea of how little agency we really have is uncomfortable. No university will guarantee the best four years of your life or a dazzling career thereafter; you can be depressed at Harvard and then unemployed, living with your parents after you graduate. No “best city to retire in” will mean you don’t end up divorced and lonely. Happiness is not a thing any amount of research or savvy will guarantee for us.

That’s a scary thought. But this is a positive thing, too: Choosing the wrong thing doesn’t have to mean the end of the world. In fact, it doesn’t have to mean anything. Except whatever we want to make of it.

Rachel Connolly (@RachelConnoll14) is a writer and critic based in London and the author of the forthcoming novel “Lazy City.”

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