New York Times
January 9, 2001
In Weird Math of Choices, 6 Choices Can Beat 600
By ERICA GOODE
CHOICE IS GOOD. And the more choices, the better.
This simple American credo lines the shelves of grocery stores with 162 varieties of breakfast cereal, turns ordering a cup of coffee at Starbucks into an Olympic challenge, makes selecting a phone company an enterprise requiring a business degree and supplies dating services with an endless stream of hopeful customers.
It also underlies the way many economists think about human behavior. Human beings, according to traditional economic theory, are rational creatures who, faced with a choice, weigh the costs and benefits of each option and pick the one they prefer. And the more options people are given, the theory goes, the more satisfied they will be.
Yet in an article published last month in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, two social psychologists dispute this view, arguing that at some point, multiplying the number of alternatives people are given becomes counter productive.
In a series of studies, Dr. Sheena S. Iyengar, an assistant professor at Columbia's business school, and Dr. Mark R. Lepper, chairman of Stanford's psychology department, have demonstrated that providing too many options— particularly when the differences between them are small — can make people feel overwhelmed and overloaded, and as a result, less likely to buy or pursue any of the options available.
Research subjects who were asked to select from an extensive array of alternatives, Dr. Lepper and Dr. Iyengar found, were less satisfied with their choices, found the choices themselves less attractive, and felt more frustrated and regretful than other subjects who were given only a limited number of options to choose from.
"One can go too far in the process of offering choices," Dr. Lepper said, "and when we are confronted with an array of choices that is larger than we can manage, it has negative effects."
While an abundance of research demonstrates the benefits of having options, Dr.Lepper said, the new studies are the first to rebut the notion that the human desire for and ability to handle choice is unlimited.
Dr. Edward L. Deci, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester who studies human motivation, said that "having more than an optimal number of options is not necessarily a motivating factor, as these studies have nicely shown."
"It's very important for people to have choices, to be able to decide what's meaningful for them," he added. "But you can get overloaded with it, just as you can anything else."
In one of the studies reported in the journal, a group of subjects were asked to choose which type of chocolate they would buy from a selection of 6 Godiva flavors. Another group was asked to choose on variety from among 30 different flavors.
Subjects who were given extensive choices found the chocolates they had selected less tasty, less enjoyable and less satisfying than did the subjects given limited choices. They had more regrets about their choices and they were less likely to choose chocolates as compensation for taking part in the study than were subjects whose field of choice was restricted.
In another study, the researchers set up a "tasting booth" at Draeger's Supermarket in Menlo Park, Calif., an upscale grocery store known for its wide selection of foods. (On a normal day, Dr. Iyengar and Dr. Lepper report, Draeger's features "roughly 250 different varieties of mustard, 75 different varieties of olive oil and over 300 varieties of jam.")
When shoppers approached the booth, some found a selection of 6 types of jam to taste; others encountered a choice of 24 different jams.
The wider selection, Dr. Lepper and Dr. Iyengar found, attracted more shoppers: of 242 customers who passed by, 60 percent stopped at the tasting booth, compared with only 40 percent of the 260 customers who passed the more limited display.
But while nearly 30 percent of the shoppers given 6 choices subsequently bought a jar of jam, only 3 percent of those offered 24 varieties made a purchase.
"Even though consumers presumably shop at this particular store in part because of the large number of selections available," the researchers wrote, "having 'too much' choice seems nonetheless to have hampered their later motivation to buy."
They added that "these findings are striking," and they "appear to challenge a fundamental assumption that having more, rather than fewer choices is necessarily more desirable and intrinsically motivating."
Dr. Lepper said he was inspired to carry out the studies in part because of his experience with Stanford's retirement plan. When he first started teaching at the university in 1971, Dr. Lepper said, Stanford offered only two investment options, one in stocks and one in bonds.
"Nine or 10 years later they offered a third choice," he said. "A few years later, it got up to five choices. And then they hired a new benefits group, who were great believers in cafeteria plans, and suddenly we had 157 options."
Dr. Lepper added, "My sense was that this was way more choice than anybody here wanted."
Dr. Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College who has written on what he refers to as "the tyranny of freedom," said that in his view the proliferation of options in American life was often felt as a burden. "I think that we sort of worship at the idea that people should have as much freedom and autonomy to choose as they can," Dr. Schwartz said.
But in many ways Americans these days have nothing but autonomy.
"We have a choice of where to live, what kind of work to do, when to marry, whether to marry, when to have children, whether to have children, whether to be straight or gay," Dr. Schwartz said. "But when there are 100 options out there, you have no one to blame but yourself if you choose badly. And I think the combination of the escalation of expectations and this self-blame are both the result of a multiplying of options, and they can have devastating effects."
In his own work, he said, he is studying the differences between people who are "maximizers," viewing each choice as a challenge to find the very best option, and those who are "satisficers," approaching a choice as a search for any option that meets some specific set of criteria.
For a satisficer, Dr. Schwartz said, a wealth of choices is not a problem, since the task is merely to find one that works. "But if you're a maximizer," he said, "the more options there are, the more overwhelming it is."
In recent years, at least a few manufacturers have picked up on the idea that endlessly increasing consumers' options is not always an effective strategy.
In the early 1990's, for example, Procter & Gamble reduced the number of varieties and sizes of Head and Shoulders shampoo from 26 to 15. The shampoo's market share increased as a result, according to a representative of the company.
Still, as Dr.Lepper noted, many studies make clear that having a choice is better than not having choice at all.
Preschoolers offered a selection of magic markers, for example, draw better pictures than those told which markers to use. Grade school children asked to choose the projects they want to work on turn in work of higher quality than those given no choice. And giving people options, a host of studies show, can also increase their life satisfaction, the degree to which they feel internally motivated, and how much control they perceive themselves as having.
In some cases, it also pays to have as many choices as possible, Dr. Lepper said. If 1,000 people go into a library looking for something specific to read, for example, the more volumes there are on the shelves, the better. And the more entrees there are on a restaurant menu, the more chance people have of finding what they like to eat.
In such situations, said Dr. Lepper, "We know exactly what we want, and this gives us the opportunity to match it. Up to the point that it gets cumbersome, we're going to prefer to have more choices."