My computer has over 5,000 songs on it — 16.2 days’ worth, according to my music-playing software. So how do I pick what song to listen to? More often than not, I just shuffle the whole list and play whatever album shows up on top. But if I’m in the car listening to the radio, I switch between the 10 or so local stations I’ve programmed in until I hear a song I like. I seem to be more likely to rely on my own judgment when I have fewer choices.
Some researchers have found similar effects with buying decisions: shoppers with just a few flavors of jam to choose from are more likely to buy than those given dozens of options (including the original choices). It’s as if we’re paralyzed when we have a large number of options to choose from, and so we end up getting nothing.
But is less always more? Most of the studies on number of choices have either given participants a very small or a very large number of options. Does this mean just one choice is the best? Or is there some larger number of choices that is optimal?
To find out, Avni Shah and George Wolford set up a table in a busy corridor at Dartmouth College and asked passersby to help their department select the best pen to order for its supply closet. They varied the number of pens sampled from 2 to 20. Each pen was similarly priced at around $2, and while each pen was different, all were “roller-ball” style pens with black ink.
After suggesting a pen, the passersby were given the option to buy the pen for a discount price of just $1 (they were told that the pens were valued at $2). One hundred students participated, and here are the results:
Significantly more students bought the pens when there was a middle number of choices than when there were either high or low numbers of choices. So we appear to prefer a moderate number of choices — not too many, and not too few.
Shah and Wolford believe that purchasing patterns are likely to be similar for a wide range of products — although depending on the particular product, the optimal number of choices might be higher or lower than the 8-12 range they found for roller-ball pens.
Greta and I have been postponing a purchase of a new TV for similar reasons. Our TV is nearly 15 years old and we’d like to be able to watch the new widescreen programs, but every time we start thinking about what TV to buy, we’re overwhelmed by the choices. Have you put off making a purchase because you have too much choice? Not enough choices? Let us know about it in the comments.
Shah AM, & Wolford G (2007). Buying behavior as a function of parametric variation of number of choices. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 18 (5), 369-70 PMID: 17576272