We are suddenly in an era of numberless possibilities, yet the more options we have, the harder it is to pick one.
It’s a conundrum that is causing many to feel overwhelmed to the point where no choice is made at all, and according to some psychologists there is a danger that today’s abundance of consumer options can not only stall our decision making, it can erode our general wellbeing too.
The phenomenon of ‘too much choice’ exists in almost everything we do. From homes to cars, to credit card options and mobile phone plans, and even small-scale items like type of milk and toothpaste you buy; having to choose between too many roughly equivalent options induces stress, anxiety and even fear.
Although we want the ability to choose, several studies have revealed we can become crippled by indecision at having too much freedom of choice. When (and even if) we do come to a decision there are feelings of guilt and confusion about whether the decision we have made is the right one.
The ABC’s Catalyst program conducted an experiment with Swarthmore College’s professor Barry Schwartz to determine how much choice is too much.
Using 24 different kinds of jam, the experiment looked to determine how many people made a purchase when they were confronted with every available option.
It turns out that when all 24 jams were on display, people came to try them but did not convert their sampling into purchases. When the number of jams was reduced to six there was also a reduction in the number of people visiting the display but this converted into a considerable increase in sales after sampling.
To use the jam experiment as a means of explaining why people feel more ‘satisfied’ with their decisions when there are less options, Schwartz says: “We know from lots of research that losses feel more bad than gains feel good. The loss involved in each of those ‘nos’ mounts up, and it takes the satisfaction out of the thing you end up choosing.”
Choosing six jams therefore meant only five jams were rejected, but choosing one jam in 24 meant people were losing out on another 23.
Stanford marketing professor Szu-chi Huang takes the phenomenon a step further, saying that too many choices can derail our ability to achieve goals and can have a negative impact on our motivation.
“By providing multiple ways to attain the goal, we’re actually forcing people to stop and think and make a choice instead of giving them a straightforward path to rush to the end,” she says, adding that offering people several paths to follow when they are taking their first steps makes the goal seem easier, but too many choices undermines people’s motivation at the end of their pursuit because it makes things harder.
According to science, there are only so many variables our brains can cope with comfortably with in order to make a clear decision.