• Robb G. Best

The Paradox of the Paradox of Choice


When it comes to selling, is it better to present your customers with many options, or just a few? It's a debate that's been brewing since at least 2004, when psychologist Barry Shwartz published The Paradox of Choice, in which he argued that reducing the number of available choices can greatly cut down on that dreaded buyer's remorse, leading to an overall greater degree of personal happiness.

And indeed, grocery stores like Aldi and Trader Joe's seem to thrive in part by slimming their options, offering only one brand or one variety of each item. It's not just about reducing shelf space: the theory goes that curating the available options allows you to avoid overtaxing the customer's brain, kicking them into decision paralysis. On the other hand, superstores like Meijer aren't exactly struggling, despite their brain-blasting array of every conceivable product. What gives?

It seems that a larger array of offerings can lead to choice overload--sometimes. But the truth is, as it turns out, a little more complicated than that. Researchers Alexander Chernev, Ulf Böckenholt, and Joeseph Gordon analyzed a huge stack of choice overload studies, and found a number of factors that influence whether you'll prefer scanning an overflowing cereal aisle for your perfect breakfast, or if that broad expanse of boxes will make you just give up and opt for eggs instead.

1. Decision task difficulty.

This refers to the way the choice is set up for you, and includes details like time constraints (do I need to choose quickly?), accountability (will I need to justify my choice to someone else?), attributes per option (on how many dimensions can I compare each cereal?), and presentation format (how are my choices arranged?).

2. Choice set complexity.

Here's where we evaluate the quality of the choices themselves. Is there one clear winner, in which case a large number of other options won't trouble you? Are all your choices stellar, meaning you'll prefer to have fewer contenders to choose from? To what extent can you do a one-to-one comparison of the traits of each cereal? (The harder it is to do this, the more taxing it will be to sort through many options.) How many of the available choices meet your needs? (The more choices that satisfy your parameters, the harder choosing will be.)

3. Preference uncertainty.

Do you already have strong preferences in place? If you already have a deep domain knowledge of cereal options, or if you already have the platonic ideal of what a cereal should be, enshrined in your mind, you'll generally appreciate being able to choose from a broader spread of choices. On the other hand, if you have no idea where to begin, that same aisle can feel downright paralyzing.

4. Decision goal.

How much do you want to simplify the process? If you're just browsing, that majestic expanse of boxes can actually be sort of pleasant. There's also decision focus to consider--it's easier to choose between one assortment and another than to narrow your choice down to a single item. Lastly, there's what Chernev et al call the "level of construal," which refers to how abstractly you conceptualize the entire cereal-buying experience. If it all feels very theoretical, you may prefer a wide variety of items to choose from, while if you are pausing to vividly imagine the mouth feel of each option, you'd probably prefer a smaller shelf.

So, when it comes to consumer decisions, is less more? If Chernev and his team is to be believed, the answer is a rousing "it depends."


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