Choice Overload

Posted in Principles

Have you ever looked at a supermarket display and felt paralyzed by the sheer number of options available? How about the menu at a diner? The Netflix homepage? Too many choices can be overwhelming, and lead to choice overload. When faced with a huge range of options, many people fail to choose the best option or fail to choose altogether. Having more options often leads to less realized choices.

In one experiment, psychologists offered samples of jams to shoppers in a supermarket. On some days, there were 24 jams for sale, while on other days there were only six. More shoppers stopped by to try a sample of jam when there were more options, but, counter-intuitively, the more jams that were for sale, the less likely shoppers were to actually make a purchase. Meanwhile, the smaller selection of just six jams resulted in a tenfold increase in jam purchases. With two dozen jams to choose from, shoppers were paralyzed in an attempt to determine whether they liked the Strawberry & Champagne, Tiptree Strawberry, East Anglian Strawberry, or Little Scarlet Strawberry flavor most. The implications of this phenomenon are larger than people not getting the right jam – later work showed that as the number of retirement investment options a company offers increases, employee participation declines.

By taking steps such as limiting the amount of unnecessary information presented, decreasing the number of choices presented, and increasing the meaningful differences between them, we can facilitate decision-making and prevent the paralysis created by choice overload.

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