How You Can Overcome the Paradox of Choice

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People like to have choices. Yet, if you’ve ever tried to select a pair of jeans, a faucet for your kitchen sink, or a testing tool for your software team, you know that having lots of choices doesn’t make the task easier. They may even make it harder.

This phenomenon is known as the paradox of choice; that is, the more choices there are, the less satisfied we become. Indeed, it’s sometimes called the tyranny of choice.

We face this tyranny everywhere. As an article in The Economist points out:

The average American supermarket now carries 48,750 items, according to the Food Marketing Institute, more than five times the number in 1975. Britain's Tesco stocks 91 different shampoos, 93 varieties of toothpaste and 115 of household cleaner. Carrefour's hypermarket in the Paris suburb of Montesson, a hangar-like place filled with everything from mountain bikes to foie gras, is so vast that staff circulate on rollerblades.

And the problem goes beyond consumer products to include choices among medical products, technological services, and funds in a 401K plan, among others.

In one of my favorite experiments about the paradox of choice, psychologist Sheena Iyengar arranged for a grocery store to invite customers to taste different kinds of jams. At certain times of the day, customers could taste any of six flavors, and at other times, any of twenty-four flavors. More customers stopped for samples when twenty-four choices were offered. But surprise, surprise, only 6 percent of these customers purchased jam, while 30 percent of those who stopped at the six-flavor table purchased jam.

This study and others that followed confirmed that too many choices leave us overwhelmed. Instead of making the decision, we start to obsess over making the wrong decision.

Some companies have paid attention to this phenomenon. For example, Procter & Gamble reduced the number of choices of a brand of shampoo from twenty-six to fifteen. The result: A 10 percent increase in sales. Additionally, consider the case of the Golden Cat Corp., which eliminated ten categories of kitty litter. The result: A 12 percent increase in sales, a 50 percent reduction in distribution costs, and a resulting 87 percent increase in profit. It appears that when consumers are less confused, everyone benefits.

Still, there may be more to the issue than simply too many choices. According to a research scientist in Switzerland, our ability to choose also depends on the information we’re given as we strive to choose, the type of expertise we have to rely on, and how much importance we ascribe to each choice. Even choosing among just two options can become maddening if the information available to guide the selection is complicated and vague.

In any case, Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less which explored this issue in detail, advocates the idea of “good enough.” That is, most of the time, we don’t need the very best, and only rarely is it worth struggling to find the best choice. If we continue searching for the best, we’ll eventually either give up or be forever nagged by the possibility that if we just searched a little longer, we might have found something better.

Keep this in mind the next time you need to choose toothpaste, an Internet service, or a blog post to read. Just read this one. It’s good enough!

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Naomi Karten

Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.