Marketing Strategy

The Paralyzing Effect of Choice

Have you ever stopped to think about just how many decisions you make each and every day? Some choices are very simple, such as choosing to get up in the morning and going to work rather than being fired for not showing up. Others are more complex. Much more complex. You want to buy a new computer for example, but which model of the thousands available to American consumers today will you choose?

Many would say that if people have more options (cereal brands at the grocery store, shirts at the department store, mutual funds in the financial market, health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act), then they’re better off. But there is another side to this argument that stands on the belief that the overwhelming push to offer consumers everything their hearts could ever hope for, might actually be a detriment to the economy. How so? Well, many consumers today are so overwhelmed with the choices that need to be made in order to get the product or service that they want, that it actually paralyzes their decision making ability and causes them to walk away without buying or choosing anything.

So, are people better off with all the choices they could ever imagine? Or does the power of choice really only cause a paralyzing effect, which oftentimes results in people not buying anything at all.

Is Less Really More??

On any given day, you’re faced with scores of decisions—many you might not even realize you’re making. Should you hit the snooze button one more time? Wear the blue shirt or the green one? Or run the light that’s quickly changing from amber to red.

You’re tasked with making several choices every time you walk into a grocery or hardware store, restaurant or, well, just about any other place you might spend money.

And while it may be nice to have several different types of toppings available for your hamburger or type of sides to complement your steak, for many, having so many choices is a source of anxiety and self-doubt.

Would the mushrooms be better than the sautéed onions on your filet? Is Swiss a better cheese choice than cheddar for your burger? And don’t even start about all the different paint finishes available to you for your favorite hue of blue that’s earmarked for your powder room.

We’ve long been accustomed to thinking that more is better. That the more choices we have, the better we’re able to express independence and individualism.

But experts say we could be setting ourselves up for failure.

Confidence In Our Choices

A recent study from New York University found that when faced with making choices, if we lack sufficient evidence to guarantee success related to the choice, our brain begins to play tricks on us. The brain starts to calculate the amount of time it takes you to make the decision and associates prolonged time with lower accuracy and confidence in the decision.

So when you’re trying to choose between a variety of mutual funds in the financial market or health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act, the longer you take to make a decision, the less confident your brain is with the decision you make.

In a sense, your brain loves snap decisions. And it’s not fond of multiple options if they muddy your decision-making ability proving the overwhelming push to offer consumers everything their hearts could ever hope for could actually be a detriment to the economy.

Think it’s hogwash?

Think again.

If over time your brain learns to lack confidence in decisions stemming from much deliberation over multiple choices, you might not order an appetizer before dinner at all because you just can’t choose which one best suits your palate. Or you might not invest in the financial market because you’re not confident that you can choose the investment vehicle—or advisor—for you.

Is Less Really Best?

A widely-reference 1995 jam study conducted by Sheena Iyengar, Ph.D., a professor of business at Columbia University supports this notion.

Professor Iyengar and research team assistants set up a booth of samples of jams in a California gourmet market. They periodically switched from offering a selection of 24 jams to just six. Regardless of the number of possible options, on average, customers tasted two jams.

Sixty percent of customers stopped to sample jams from the large assortment versus 40 percent who stopped for the small one. However, interestingly, 30 percent of those who sampled from the small assortment ultimately bought jam. Only 3 percent of those confronted with the larger group of 24 varieties purchased a jar.

That study “raised the hypothesis that the presence of choice might be appealing as a theory,” Professor Iyengar said, “but in reality, people might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating.”

Several different versions of the jam study have been conducted using chocolate and speed dating.

The Downside of Getting To Make A Decision

Research published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,which is published by the American Psychological Association, says even though humans’ ability to weigh choices is remarkably advantageous, it can also come with some serious liabilities. And that those faced with numerous good or bad choices find it difficult to stay focused enough to complete projects, handle daily tasks or even take their medicine.

The researchers found that the more choices shoppers at a mall had made earlier in the day, the worse they performed on math problems. “Maintaining one’s focus while trying to solve problems or completing an unpleasant task was much harder for those who had made choices compared to those who had not,” says Kathleen D. Vohs, PhD, the study’s lead author and a member of the University of Minnesota’s marketing department. She deduced that making choices actually depletes us of a precious mental resource.

“This pattern was found in the laboratory, classroom and shopping mall. Having to make the choice was the key. It did not matter if the researchers told participants to make choices, or if it was a spontaneously made choice, or if making the choice had consequences or not.”

“There is a significant shift in the mental programming that is made at the time of choosing, whether the person acts on it at that time or sometime in the future. Therefore, simply the act of choosing can cause mental fatigue,” says Vohs. “Making choices can be difficult and taxing, and there is a personal price to choosing.”

Research also shows that an abundance of choices typically results in consumers feeling less—not more—satisfied once a decision is made. That’s because we tend to feel as though we could have chosen better. And wonder if we’ve made a mistake.

Seeking the perfect choice, no matter the size of the decision, “is a recipe for misery,” said Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and author of “The Paradox of Choice” (Ecco, 2003).

The More the Merrier

Not all experts are ready to jump on the ‘less is best’ train.

Benjamin Scheibehenne, a research scientist at the University of Basel in Switzerland, has cautioned there’s not enough evidence to conclude that too many choices are bad. But also that it’s is wrong to assume that more choices are always better because the information we’re given as we make those choices, the type of expertise we have to rely on and how much importance we ascribe to each choice all play vital roles.

In a review published in October in The Journal of Consumer Research Scheibehenne examined dozens of studies about choices. He noted one problem is separating the concept of choice overload from information overload.

Essentially, he questioned how much people are affected by the number of choices we have and “how much from the lack of information or any prior understanding of the options?”

In the end, it’s hard to know which line of thinking is the right one to choose. But it’s important to know that if you find yourself waffling over even the smallest of decisions or struggling to choose between chicken or fish for dinner, you may be stuck in a paradox of choice.