Choice is a central tenet of our culture and is woven within the historical fabric of our nation. It is closely tied to the idea of freedom and liberty. The concept of choice has evolved from one that focused on personal freedom to one that reflects the desire to have a multitude of choices with respect to every conceivable activity.
The change in the idea of choice has been driven by our consumer-based economy and the emergence of the virtual world and the seemingly unlimited choices it affords. Choices have ballooned in our nation over the last 50 years, and now, more than ever before, we have an inordinate amount of choices. In short, we have come to believe that more choice is better.
At Baskin-Robbins, there are no longer 31 flavors but more than 55. Likewise, McDonald’s no longer offers 82 items as it did in 2007 but now around 145 menu items. Coffee is another barometer of how choice has expanded with Starbucks offering only a handful of items in 1971 and now an incredible 67 kinds of roasted coffee, 26 varieties of frappuccinos as well as a multitude of other beverages.
Most would assume that more choice is a good thing. Don’t we all like to get the exact type, size and variety of coffee we want when we want it? However, new research is increasingly questioning our long-held belief that a multitude of choices is a good thing.
Sheena Iyengar, a researcher at Columbia University who has explored how we deal with choice, found that people in a supermarket were six times more likely to buy a product (in this study, jam) if they had six options versus 24 options from which to choose. In this case, fewer options led to more decisions and more purchases. Similarly, when Procter & Gamble decreased the number of Head & Shoulders shampoo varieties to 15 from 26, sales increased 10 percent. These findings, and others, seem to underscore the idea that too many choices create indecision. Seemingly, more options are not necessarily better.
There are important parallels to these findings in the financial world, where it has been shown that even for important decisions, more options actually decrease our ability to choose.
Iyengar and colleagues studied how the number of retirement fund plan options offered to employees was related to employee participation in retirement plans. The researches found that the fewer fund choices offered, the higher the rate of employee participation. Participation increased 10 percent when the options were decreased to 10 mutual funds from 50. In this case, even though the end goal of participation in a retirement fund is arguably a very good thing, employees report not being able to make a decision or putting off the decision for the future (inevitably to be forgotten) when they are given more options. It is clear that for insignificant and significant decisions, “choice paralysis,” or failure to make any choice, occurs when too many options are offered.
Not only do we have difficulty making a choice when given many options, but we tend to doubt our ultimate decision. Researchers call this phenomenon “escalation of expectations.” The idea is that if we have a lot of options and choose one, we may think that one of the many alternatives could have been better. In contrast, with fewer options, even if we are not completely satisfied with our choice, we often believe it might have been the best of the few options offered.
An anecdotal example can be found in a visit to an ice cream store. You may know you want chocolate, but if you are offered five varieties of chocolate ice cream and gelato, three size cups and 10 toppings, you may ultimately doubt your choice of dark chocolate chunk in a medium cup with marshmallows. In contrast, if you were given only one chocolate option with one size cup and no toppings, you most likely will be happier with your choice.
It is clear that more choice is not necessarily better. If more choice leads to choice paralysis and makes us doubt our choice, how can we navigate in a culture full of choices? Iyengar and colleagues offer some suggestions. First, limit or cut the number of options offered. If you want people to buy jam, give them fewer options. Likewise, if you are going to enter a situation with many choices, limit your options beforehand. Before you enter the ice cream store, decide that you will buy only the smallest ice cream cup size, will not have any toppings on the ice cream and will taste only three flavors before making a decision.
The second technique Leyengar recommends is concretization, which is making the choice feel real by exploring its consequences. For example, Leyengar found that when employees were asked to choose a mutual fund for retirement and given instructions to really think about what saving money could do for their life, enrollment increased 20 percent. If you are trying to make a choice about a weekend getaway, really think about what kind of experience each option will offer you and try to visualize yourself there doing the activities offered at each venue.
Categorization is another technique Iyengar identifies as helping us deal with the multitude of choice we experience. She and her colleagues have found we can make choices better when we are dealing with information that has been categorized. This categorization makes it easier for us to evaluate the choices. For example, if you want a new book to read and plan to go to a large bookstore, simplify your choice by using categorization. Using categorization, you might look for only nonfiction bestsellers published this year that are available in hard cover.
Iyengar also recommends that we “condition for complexity,” which means we start with simple choices and then move on to more complex ones. In keeping with this idea, if we are looking for a new mattress, we should start by choosing a size of mattress we need (few options), a firmness (limited options), a brand (more options) and then a particular model or style (most options). By starting with a choice that has limited options, we gain confidence and become invested in the choosing process so that we are more able to deal with the more complicated choices in the process.
Choice is a double-edged sword. Like most things, a certain amount of it is good, but too much of it can be paralyzing. In trying to limit your choices in our overly choice-saturated culture, adopt some of the simple tips Iyengar recommends. Cutting the number of choices, making them very concrete, categorizing the choices and starting with the least complex choice can make the process of choosing easier and make you ultimately happier with the decision. With some focus, you can navigate the plethora of choices around you and take advantage of the options without becoming overwhelmed by them.
Now, go make some good choices!
— Winifred Lender Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She provides cognitive-behavioral therapy for sleep regulation issues, anxiety and depression, and completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.