The Paradox Of Expanded Choices: What Too Much Of A Good Thing Means For Consumers

Why isn't a product line catching on? Your company may be offering too much. We continue our Leadership Hall of Fame series, a year-long look at the top business books and authors, with an excerpt from The Paradox of Choice (2004) by Barry Schwartz.

The Paradox of ChoiceAmericans spend more time shopping than the members of any other society. Americans go to shopping centers about once a week, more often than they go to houses of worship, and Americans now have more shopping centers than high schools. In a recent survey, 93 percent of teenage girls surveyed said that shopping was their favorite activity. Mature women also say they like shopping, but working women say that shopping is a hassle, as do most men. When asked to rank the pleasure they get from various activities, grocery shopping ranks next to last, and other shopping fifth from the bottom. And the trend over recent years is downward. Apparently, people are shopping more now but enjoying it less.

There is something puzzling about these findings. It's not so odd, perhaps, that people spend more time shopping than they used to. With all the options available, picking what you want takes more effort. But why do people enjoy it less? And if they do enjoy it less, why do they keep doing it? If we don't like shopping at the supermarket, for example, we can just get it over with, and buy what we always buy, ignoring the alternatives. Shopping in the modern supermarket demands extra effort only if we're intent on scrutinizing every possibility and getting the best thing. And for those of us who shop in this way, increasing options should be a good thing, not a bad one.

And this, indeed, is the standard line among social scientists who study choice. If we're rational, they tell us, added options can only make us better off as a society. Those of us who care will benefit, and those of us who don't care can always ignore the added options. This view seems logically compelling; but empirically, it isn't true.

A recent series of studies, titled "When Choice Is Demotivating," provide the evidence. One study was set in a gourmet food store in an upscale community where, on weekends, the owners commonly set up sample tables of new items. When researchers set up a display featuring a line of exotic, high-quality jams, customers who came by could taste samples, and they were given a coupon for a dollar off if they bought a jar. In one condition of the study, 6 varieties of the jam were available for tasting. In another, 24 varieties were available. In either case, the entire set of 24 varieties was avail¬able for purchase. The large array of jams attracted more people to the table than the small array, though in both cases people tasted about the same number of jams on average. When it came to buying, however, a huge difference became evident. Thirty percent of the people exposed to the small array of jams actually bought a jar; only 3 percent of those exposed to the large array of jams did so.

In a second study, this time in the laboratory, college students were asked to evaluate a variety of gourmet chocolates, in the guise of a marketing survey. The students were then asked which chocolate—based on description and appearance—they would choose for themselves. Then they tasted and rated that chocolate. Finally, in a different room, the students were offered a small box of the chocolates in lieu of cash as payment for their participation. For one group of students, the initial array of chocolates numbered 6, and for the other, it numbered 30. The key results of this study were that the students faced with the small array were more satisfied with their tasting than those faced with the large array. In addition, they were four times as likely to choose chocolate rather than cash as compensation for their participation.

The authors of the study speculated about several explanations for these results. A large array of options may discourage consumers because it forces an increase in the effort that goes into making a decision. So consumers decide not to decide, and don't buy the product. Or if they do, the effort that the decision requires detracts from the enjoyment derived from the results. Also, a large array of options may diminish the attractiveness of what people actually choose, the reason being that thinking about the attractions of some of the unchosen options detracts from the pleasure derived from the chosen one. So why can't people just ignore many or some of the options, and treat a 30-option array as if it were a 6-option array?

There are several possible answers. First, an industry of marketers and advertisers makes products difficult or impossible to ignore. They are in our faces all the time. Second, we have a tendency to look around at what others are doing and use them as a standard of comparison. If the person sitting next to me on an airplane is using an extremely light, compact laptop computer with a large, crystal-clear screen, the choices for me as a consumer have just been expanded, whether I want them to be or not. Third, we may suffer from what economist Fred Hirsch referred to as the "tyranny of small decisions." We say to ourselves, "Let's go to one more store" or "Let's look at one more catalog," and not "Let's go to all the stores" or "let's look at all the catalogs." It always seems easy to add just one more item to the array that is already being considered. So we go from 6 options to 30, one option at a time. By the time we're done with our search, we may look back in horror at all the alternatives we've considered and discarded along the way.

But what I think is most important is that people won't ignore alternatives if they don't realize that too many alternatives can create a problem. And our culture sanctifies freedom of choice so profoundly that the benefits of infinite options seem self-evident. When experiencing dissatisfaction or hassle on a shopping trip, consumers are likely to blame it on something else—surly salespeople, traffic jams, high prices, items out of stock—anything but the overwhelming array of options.

Nonetheless, certain indicators pop up occasionally that signal discontent with this trend. There are now several books and magazines devoted to what is called the "voluntary simplicity" movement. Its core idea is that we have too many choices, too many decisions, too little time to do what is really important.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure that people attracted to this movement think about "simplicity" in the same way I do. Recently I opened a magazine called Real Simple to find something of a simplicity credo. It said that "at the end of the day, we're so caught up in doing, there's no time to stop and think. Or to take care of our own wants and needs." Real Simple, it is claimed, "offers actionable solutions to simplify your life, eliminate clutter, and help you focus on what you want to do, not what you have to do." Taking care of our own "wants" and focusing on what we "want" to do does not strike me as a solution to the problem of too much choice. It is precisely so that we can, each of us, focus on our own wants that all of these choices emerged in the first place. Could readers be attracted to a magazine that offered to simplify their lives by convincing them to stop wanting many of the things they wanted? That might go a long way toward reducing the choice problem. But who would choose to buy the magazine?

We can imagine a point at which the options would be so copious that even the world's most ardent supporters of freedom of choice would begin to say, "enough already." Unfortunately, that point of revulsion seems to recede endlessly into the future.

Read more from Barry Schwartz or our Leadership Hall of Fame.

Reprinted from the book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz. Published by Harper Perennial. All Rights Reserved.

Add New Comment

4 Comments

  • nicholasklimchuk

    Freedom of choice is never a bad thing.

    The market will stop providing numerous choices when it is no longer profitable; when it is no longer what consumers want. If companies choose to risk precious capital to provide numerous options, that is their decision. They can experiment with their resources as they see fit. If they succeed, they profit. If not, they lose out. They constantly learn and adapt in an ever-changing environment.

    The market naturally evolves to better meet the needs of consumers. Competition and creative destruction do away with bad practices, businesses and ideas, replacing them with more successful alternatives. Granted this process is constrained, slowed and distorted (to the detriment of consumers) by government interventions like regulation and taxation. We get less innovation, at a slower pace with higher prices to boot. All because of reduced competition.

    Reducing options is not necessarily the solution to "overwhelming options." Instead, a market for better information services (expert opinion magazines, blogs, reviews, ratings etc.) could emerge. Companies that learn to provide these short-cuts or entrepreneurs who capitalize on this consumer need will rightfully benefit. Those that don't will lose out, and possibly fail if they don't adapt.

    Everyone benefits from free-choice. To suggest that happiness will increase if individual freedom is limited is non-sensical and wrong.

    Even when "ardent supporters of freedom of choice" say "enough already" they are making a choice. To not act is a choice. To make that choice, one requires individual freedom.

  • Stephanie Archer

    I agree with the points made in this article, which is why, as a working mother, I prefer to go to a smaller, local, family-owned grocery store rather than Giant or Safeway. I know what I want, they have a decent, but limited variety of items, no miles-and-miles of aisles to slog through, quick checkout, and they always offer to help me to my car. That said, my problems with shopping stem more from having the same choices offered at multiple stores. We tried for years to find matching chairs for our kitchen table, but if you don't want blond or walnut colored wood, you have a hard time finding what you need. We've also been trying for several YEARS to find a new comforter - but all of the department stores carry the same brand lines. So we have to keep shopping at "just one more store" since we haven't been able to even "satisfise" ourselves with the plethora of items available that are really just variation on a bad theme.

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    I have found it necessary to impose a brutal simplicity upon shopping. I find something that works for me in terms of size / features / fit / style / whatever (depends on the product), then I stick with it until something forces me to change my mind, then I lock on to something else. I am a big fan of "satisficing" instead of optimizing every product choice. 

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Time Coach
    www.DarkMatterConsulting.com

    "Time to be Extraordinary!"

  • susanoc@live.com

    "Shopping in the modern supermarket demands extra effort only if we're intent on scrutinizing every possibility and getting the best thing." This sounds like a statement by someone who doesn't shop for more than just himself, and/or has a schedule that allows him to shop at off hours when the aisles of the supermarket aren't clogged with family-oriented populations which include parents pushing enormous "child friendly" shopping carts and the elderly (god-bless them). I would also enjoy shopping more if the grocery prices for the same thing you buy every week didn't keep raising skyward. I don't disagree with all of the points in the article, but as the shopper in our family, this point didn't sit well with me.