When There Are Too Many Options

A friend of mine took her seven-year-old granddaughter to Toys R Us and told the girl she could take home any one toy in the store. Wonderful gesture? It didn’t work out that way. No matter what the granddaughter considered choosing, she was afraid that something else might be better. She ended up choosing nothing and left the store in tears.

This is an example of a paradox of human nature: With choices, more is not necessarily better.

Here’s another example, from research done by Sheena Iyengar, a professor of business at Columbia University. She and her assistants set up a display of jams at a California gourmet shop, offering taste-tests to customers and alternating between showing 24 varieties and six varieties. Every shopper who stopped to taste got a coupon for $1 off the purchase price. Although the 24-variety display attracted more customers, only 3 percent of the taste-testers actually bought a jar, whereas 30 percent bought a jar when six varieties were available. The conclusion: Although greater choice is attractive, it leads to a paralysis of indecision.

Similar results have been reported among Swedish workers who had to choose from a bewildering array of pension plans.

The New York Times columnist Alina Tugend, in a recent article about this phenomenon, pointed to the work of Benjamin Scheibehenne, a research scientist at the University of Basel, who argues that the problem is not too many options but rather difficulty processing information about the options. People faced with a large range of options often are hindered by incomplete or incompatible information.

A useful example is trying to choose a mobile calling plan. There aren’t a large number of providers, but it’s still very difficult to compare the plans because all involve a confusing mix of charges for monthly any-time minutes, extra minutes, roving, text messages, and data services. Comparisons get even more complicated when the charges are bundled with the purchase of a phone or with additional services such as Internet access and cable television.

Now, consider the complex issues that bear on the decision of a career choice. So many factors are relevant to satisfaction in my career choice: skill requirements I can handle; work tasks that are interesting; a work environment I find compatible; work hours that I can tolerate; travel requirements that are not burdensome; stress levels I can handle; a level of prestige commensurate with my ego needs; sufficient variety to keep me interested; enough pay to provide for life’s necessities, plus a few extras; enough security to keep me reasonably confident about the future. You can probably think of some other issues that are important to you.

Also consider the possible consequences of a poor choice. If I choose the wrong cell phone contract, I may pay $30 per month more than I would under a competing plan, but if I choose the wrong career, the monthly difference in earnings may be much greater. Bad cell phone reception is a problem only when I make a call, but any of the numerous work-related issues has the potential to create dissatisfaction for 40 hours of the week.

Faced with hundreds of career options, nobody can systematically obtain and process all the information that would be required to make a decision, not even with the help of a computer-based system that is supposed to do this information processing. So how do we do it? Why are we not paralyzed with indecision?

First, the range of choice is never hundreds of career options. Most of us are open to considering only a small set of occupational goals because of the expectations we absorb from our family, our role models, our social class, and our teachers, who let us know our intellectual strengths and weaknesses at an early age. Our childhood peers inform us of our physical strengths and weaknesses.

I think John Krumboltz of Stanford University has a good understanding of what happens next: Most of us blunder into a career path by taking advantage of happenstance and serendipity, which lead us into experiences that teach us what we find rewarding, and then offer opportunities to make career goals out of these rewarding situations. I think this behavior accounts for a very large portion of the career decisions that people make.

Nevertheless, my own livelihood is based on the fact that some people want to learn about career options through exploration that is not experiential. That is, they want to learn about career options through media such as books or videos.

Therefore, what I try to do in my books and in the guides that accompany the video resources I’ve worked on is to provide some ways to (a) reduce the number of options drastically and (b) facilitate apples-to-apples comparisons between options. I accomplish the former by classifying occupations into categories such as Holland types, career clusters, or levels of education that usually are required. Some of my books include checklists to help people quickly eliminate a large number of career options. I accomplish the latter by listing comparable facts about occupations, such as their earnings, job growth, skill requirements, and work conditions.

If these methods of comparing occupations seem simplistic, keep in mind that presenting readers with all available knowledge about all career options would lead to information overload and would make a decision much more difficult. I believe in simplifying matters, avoiding the outcome of the granddaughter at Toys R Us, encouraging readers to narrow down their options to a small set that then can be explored experientially.

 

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