How To Defeat "Choice Overload," And De-Stress Vacation Planning

If planning your summer vacation is stressing you out, you're not alone. Here's what to do about it.

Barcelona, Orlando, or Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin?

Where will you be going for your summer vacation? Still trying to figure it out? If planning a summer vacation is stressing you out—you are not alone.

A new study entitled "Confused by Too Many Choices? Choice Overload in Tourism" concludes that "choice overload," a form of information overload, stresses people out when they have too many vacation options to pick from.

This might be somewhat counterintuitive, because we are taught from a young age that having more choices is better than having fewer choices. Remember the Saturday morning television commercials where we were pummeled with a dizzying array of breakfast cereal permutations? (Will it be Bite Size Frosted Strawberry Delight Mini-Wheats or would you prefer Touch of Fruit in the Middle Mixed Berry Mini-Wheats?)

Later on, in college economics courses, we learned about utility maximization—that the more customized a product or service is for our personal needs, the more we will value it.

But new experimental data raise some critical caveats to utility maximization when planning a vacation. The study, performed at Purdue University, found that when presented with too many vacation choices (more than 22), many people become confused and end up picking nothing. Why’s that? Here are several reasons provided by the researchers.

Little or no perceived differentiation between options.

The researchers begin their analysis by quoting the work of French philosopher Jean Buridan who theorized that when faced with two equally tempting options, "organisms" delay making a choice. His example? A donkey presented with two equal piles of hay, delays making a decision about which to eat. The point is that people find it hard to choose between vacation destinations, because we have probably never been to any of them. (Alternatively, the message might be that we may just simply be donkeys selecting from two equal vacation piles.)

Travel choices are expensive and infrequently purchased.

Since we don’t buy vacation packages often, we don’t have a lot of experience in making choices. Furthermore, the price of picking incorrectly can be quite high. And if you doubt this point, you can talk to my wife about what she thought of Barcelona last summer.

Post-purchase regret.

This is also known as making a bad choice. The fear of finding a better option causes people to hesitate when making a purchase decision—who knows, "maybe there will be a better deal tomorrow?" This is one reason travel sites offer a "best price guarantee"—to spurn people into making a purchasing decision, rather than wait. And your wife’s best friend is your worst enemy on this one. Hearing about how much better her trip to Paris was than your own to Barcelona will likely make you take pause before picking next summer’s Shangri La.

Time pressure.

The need to make a decision in a short period of time increases the pressure felt by people needing to make a decision. Time pressure is known from many information overload studies to elicit a "deer in the headlights" response of inactivity in many people.

The researchers posit that the combination of all these factors make it difficult for people to select a vacation destination. Or other tings. And the more choices that are available, the more each one of these factors plays a role. In other words, when presented with many choices, it will take more time to evaluate all the possible options, the higher the odds the selection will turn out to suboptimal, and the less likely it will be possible to differentiate between the myriad destinations. The researchers’ conclusion from the study? When presented with many choices, for many people, not making any choice produces less post-purchase regret than making any choice. In other words, many people opt to stay home.

Still can’t figure out where to go? Take my advice. Order the box set of "Married With Children" and head down to Costco to buy a couple of cases of corn chips and ice tea. Better yet, go to the local convenience store (fewer purchase choices to confuse you). Spend your vacation right there on the couch. Look at all the carbon emissions you will be saving and the hours you can avoid sitting in crowded airports or in traffic jams. On the other hand, maybe it’s time to just make up your mind and get on with your life.

What do you think—is vacation planning fun or is it a chore?

Author David Lavenda is a product strategy executive at an innovative user-experience high-tech company. He also does academic research on information overload in organizations, and he is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology. He tweets from @dlavenda.

[Image: Flickr user David Spinks]

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