The Paradox of Choice

In the developed world, choice is taken for granted, it’s generally considered to be A Good Thing. Naturally you might therefore assume that having more choice was A Better Thing, but would you be right?

Next time you go supermarket shopping, take a few minutes to have a long hard look at the shelves in each food aisle – how many types of coffee, breakfast cereal and butter are there? Research by psychologist Barry Schwartz suggests that more choice isn’t necessarily beneficial, especially if you’re a maximiser.

Basically a maximiser is someone who, having decided to buy e.g. a digital camera researches all the models extensively on the internet to compare features and prices, talks to the assistants at the local camera shop, reads Which?, asks friends for their recommendations and buys copies of every photography magazine that they can find, before creating a spreadsheet listing their Top 10 favourite models and weighting all the required functions, the price and guarantee terms before they decide which to buy.

I kid you not, I have known someone do this.

The problem is that this person wasn’t actually happy with the camera they ended up buying; they worried that it wasn’t as good as the alternatives that they didn’t choose. They wondered whether they should have waited before buying anything when a newer, more up-to-date model came on the market a month later… This is what Schwartz refers to as “maximising”, i.e. trying to make the best choice out of the tens or hundreds of available options, when in reality not only is this extremely difficult to achieve, but one is left feeling regretful about ‘the one(s) that got away’.

Satisficers, on the other hand, are those people who accept a ‘good enough’ choice. If they were buying a digital camera, they might decide on the price range and the must-have features, then buy the first camera that fitted this bill. So maybe they might not get the very best model, but their decision is made more quickly and relatively painlessly.

Is the research on how people react to choice relevant to business? Over 10 years ago when Procter & Gamble reduced the number of varieties of Head and Shoulders shampoo it offered, its sales increased. It has been suggested that this sales growth reflected consumers’ positive reaction to optimised choice. Similarly, in the discussion on the pros and cons of choice on this BBC Radio 4 programme today* it was mentioned that Asda threatened to delist some well-known brands, because consumers don’t want duplication. Tyranny of choice was mentioned by one of Asda’s executive directors. So it would seem that the theory of choice and over-choice is being taken seriously by businesses.

You may not be surprised to hear that whilst maximising behaviour carries some benefits, it is also associated with regret, perfectionism, depression and lower well-being. We’ll be discussing the pros and cons of maximising and satisficing, as well as some techniques for overcoming the ‘tyranny of choice’ in later posts.

* If you’re interested in listening to the section on the paradox of choice in this R4 programme, it’s almost 26 minutes in.

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