Paradox of Choice Paradoxically Untrue
Tyler Cowen dubs the paradox of choice — the idea that people become unhappy when given too many choices — “one of the most overrated and incorrectly cited results in the social sciences.” He cites Tim Harford‘s recent piece in FT describing research on the subject:
Is more choice better? Ten years ago the answer seemed obvious: Yes. Now the conventional wisdom is the opposite: lots of choice makes people less likely to choose anything, and less happy when they do choose.
The most famous supporting evidence is an experiment conducted by two psychologists, Mark Lepper and Sheena Iyengar. They set up a jam-tasting stall in a posh supermarket in California. Sometimes they offered six varieties of jam, at other times 24; jam tasters were then offered a voucher to buy jam at a discount.
The bigger display attracted more customers but very few of them actually bought jam. The display that offered less choice made many more sales — in fact, only 3 per cent of jam tasters at the 24-flavour stand used their discount voucher, versus 30 per cent at the six-flavour stand. This is an astonishingly strong effect — and utterly counter to mainstream economic theory.
But a more fundamental objection to the “choice is bad” thesis is that the psychological effect may not actually exist at all. It is hard to find much evidence that retailers are ferociously simplifying their offerings in an effort to boost sales. Starbucks boasts about its “87,000 drink combinations”; supermarkets are packed with options. This suggests that “choice demotivates” is not a universal human truth, but an effect that emerges under special circumstances.
Benjamin Scheibehenne, a psychologist at the University of Basel, was thinking along these lines when he decided (with Peter Todd and, later, Rainer Greifeneder) to design a range of experiments to figure out when choice demotivates, and when it does not.
But a curious thing happened almost immediately. They began by trying to replicate some classic experiments — such as the jam study, and a similar one with luxury chocolates. They couldn’t find any sign of the “choice is bad” effect. Neither the original Lepper-Iyengar experiments nor the new study appears to be at fault: the results are just different and we don’t know why.
When I saw that question at Kevin Drum‘s place, the likely answer struck me as rather obvious. Apparently, Kevin though so, too, since he came up with the same answer:
Perhaps the paradox of choice used to be true in simpler times, but the internet and the rest of modern life have taught us to revel in choice, rather than being intimidated by it. In a related vein, maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe choice dazzles me more than it does a 20-something who grew up with 87 cell phone plans, 300 cable channels, and 1,000 Facebook friends.
Even aside from technology, we’re used to more choices. Yes, we’ve gone from 3 TV channels to hundreds but also from 3 or 4 car manufacturers to a dozen, an almost infinite variety of coffees, ethnic restaurants, and many other things over the course of the past few years.
Kevin’s also right, I think, that our familiarity with the product in question matters. It’s a bit of a chore to chose between seventeen brands of strawberry jam, for instance, but not all that complicated. On the other hand, choosing a cell phone and accompanying plan — and being obligated for two years to live with that choice or pay heavy penalties — can be rather intimidating.
It also occurs to me that the original experiment may just demonstrate that people aren’t interested enough in jam to spend a lot of time comparison shopping. So, unless they’ve run out and really need some more, they may bypass a giant display whereas choosing between, say, strawberry, grape, and cherry and then between Smuckers, Polander, and store brand makes impulse purchases more inviting.
Photo: Country Living