The Paradox of Choice: Why I Hate Making Decisions

by | May 29, 2019 | Blog

I really need to buy new shoes, but I’m suffering from the Paradox of Choice.

I’ve had my gray Converse All-Star low-tops for six years, and it shows. They’re beaten up, scuffed, the inner lining worn through and holes in both heels that make them impossible to wear when it’s rainy out.

I know I need new shoes. And whenever I walk into a Target, I’ll always head to the shoe section to see if anything catches my eye.

But when I get there, I’m immediately paralyzed by the endless rows of shelves. What style should I get? What brand? What color? Should I just get a new pair of the same style, or should I try something new? Do I even need new shoes? Probably not, right? My current ones are fine for a little longer.

And so it goes. I leave Target in my same old Chucks, relieved to escape the hundreds of options making my head spin from analysis paralysis.

Even if you’re not like me and you’re able to just pick a dang shoe already, you’ve probably been in my position before. Faced with innumerable options, you feel overwhelmed and you walk away with nothing at all.

Welcome to the Paradox of Choice.

The Paradox: Choices are Stressful

Back in 2000, a couple of psychologists conducted a well-known study. Shoppers at a grocery store encountered a table offering samples with either 6 or 24 varieties of jam and would receive a $1-off coupon for the jam if they tried a sample. What they found was telling: while more people walked up to the table with 24 samples, a much smaller percentage actually bought a jar. The table with fewer samples was ultimately the successful one.

What the psychologists were observing was the paradox of choice, though it wasn’t called that yet. The paradox of choice is a term coined by psychologist Barry Schwartz, who wrote a book about it called The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less in 2004. Also called “tyranny of choice” or “choice overload,” it describes exactly what I experience every time I go to Target: the more choices we have, the harder it is to make a decision.

Schwartz specifically noted the prevalence of this phenomenon in Western capitalist societies like the United States, where freedom and liberty are valued above all else. A core part of life in a “free” society is having freedom to choose. So, more choices should be optimal, right?

Well, technically, yes. But having more choices brings drawbacks too. With more options, we worry more about whether we made the right decision, our expectations soar because we wrongly assume we’ll find the perfect choice, and sometimes we can’t even make a decision at all. Basically, as the number of options goes up, customer satisfaction goes down.

Here’s another example: do you ever find it hard to pick something to watch on Netflix? You’d think, with all the options, finding something to watch would be easy: just pick something, anything. No pressure. But as I browse the options, I start to get picky: with so many titles, I’m not just going to choose anything, I’ve got to find the right title for tonight. No matter what I pick, I often end up thinking more about the movies I didn’t choose and wondering I made the right choice.

The Marketer’s Perspective: What Not to Do

Consumer-oriented examples, like Netflix or my shoes, help demonstrate the end result of the paradox of choice. But let’s take a look at the producer’s side of things to see how those of us in the marketing and communications realm could improve some of our strategies.

The average Internet user lives a life of constant over-stimulation, where they’re hit with a constant stream of ads, promotional content, and calls to action. For the marketer, our first instinct to get noticed is to join in that stream, to come up with new ways to promote our companies daily, to put as much content out there as possible. Anything to get your company noticed.

But, as we’ve seen, more is not better. More is stressful.

Look at email. Has anyone ever actually enjoyed receiving five emails a week from a single company? I doubt it. No matter how good your content is, it’s not “reading five emails a week” good.

If you’ve got a lot of information to deliver to your audience, focus on what will appeal to them most and keep communications limited if possible: not so limited that they’ll forget you’re there, but enough so that you won’t start to feel intrusive. Try a monthly newsletter rather than a day-to-day or weekly notification. Make it something they’ll notice and look forward to opening, rather than more junk in their inbox.

Incentives: Optimize Your Points Program

For incentives, the Paradox of Choice works the same way: in a world where anything and everything is available at the click of a mouse, simplicity and a few choices can be a breath of fresh air. You have to strike a delicate balance: having a wide enough assortment of rewards to appeal to your whole participant base while not overwhelming them with too many options.

If you run a points program with a vast catalog of reward options, there are a few strategies you can use to help your participants choose. What’s important is having an idea of what kinds of rewards your participant base is interested in: do some research to find out what’s going to work best with your audience. Provide diverse options so that everyone will find something they’ll like, but don’t feel like you need to include every single variation on a theme out there. A person looking for a food processor doesn’t need to be shown thirty options before they decide.

You can also help your participants make a decision by limiting their focus to a few choice options. Try doing a monthly product highlight or promotion to direct attention to a specific reward. Structure your catalog so as to highlight what’s popular or send out segmented emails to specific groups in your participant base who might be more interested in one reward or another.

Conclusions: I Still Need New Shoes

If your wondering how many choices is the correct number of choices, one option might come from psychologist George Miller, author of the famed paper/axiom “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.” According to Miller, that’s the number of options most of us can hold in our short-term memory, and so optimizes options while not being overwhelming.

That’s hardly a cut-and-dry rule: everyone processes things differently. Some people may prefer only three options. Some may ask for every option possible. But if your marketing strategy has been to just throw everything at the wall and see what sticks, you might want to consider a bit of a revision. Take it from me, the person who’s most likely going to be buried in her coffin still wearing a pair of beaten-up gray Converse: less is more.


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