Cognitive Daily

Is less always more?

ResearchBlogging.orgMy 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:

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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

Comments

  1. #1 Greg Laden
    July 8, 2009

    Find someone you trust and do what they do. Just don’t tell them that you are doing that.

    Regarding the songs, I use a Darwinian process. I let iTunes shuffle through the songs. As you know, iTunes lists the songs it is going to play next. I delete (from the shuffle list) all the songs I don’t want to hear.

    Over time, the play frequency data accumulates so the top five or six songs are those that my daughter played over and over and over for a month once a while back, and the next couple dozens are the ones that I frequently did not unselect.

  2. #2 uber
    July 8, 2009

    I created a playlist called “the Chosen ones”.

    I then spent a rainy sunday afternoon going through all 4000+ songs and selecting only the songs i like that would fit on my 4GB mp3 player (i refuse to buy an mp3 player with more memory…i don’t NEED to carry around all my music).

    I sync only that playlist to my player and now every song that comes up is a song that i “LOVE!”.

  3. #3 Bobby Keane
    July 8, 2009

    If I am faced with too many choices I use the divide and conquer method. Say I have 10 TVs to choose from, all of which seem equally good. I randomly take 2 from the group and decide which one I like better. The winner goes into the winner-bracket and then I repeat the process until I have 5 TVs. If 5 is too many to choose from then I will begin random ‘battles’ again until I get to a manageable number. This is how my wife and I purchased our most recent vehicle… worked out really well.

    This might be a time consuming way of doing something but by the end I feel I have made the best, most carefully thought out decision.

  4. #4 Ivo Quartiroli
    July 8, 2009

    During an Italian conference dedicated to music on the Net, one boy asked the speaker, “We can download the complete discography of any artist, but the problem is: What do we like?” An interesting question, which gives the real point of the matter.

    Choices are connected with our personality; choices are bridges between our inner view and an external event. We can make the right choices for ourselves only when we can listen to ourselves deep enough to access the essence of our personality and join it to the outer life. But in order to do that we need both a solid personality which we are aware of and, some quiet and empty time to look into ourselves instead of following just external inputs. Both states are quite hard to access in online life.

  5. #5 William Lu
    July 8, 2009

    Very interesting study. On reflection I find myself often googling top 10 lists when looking to buy almost anything.

  6. #6 Voot Voot
    July 8, 2009

    It is well known by now that more choice is good where we /want to choose/.
    For example: For most people technical specs are confusing so they don’t want to choose between a computer with a SATA drive vs one with an IDE drive. However if you label one “Better + more expensive” and one “Worse but cheaper” they will probably want the choice.

    Another example: if you offer different types of pens – some that are color #0000F0 (blue) and others that are #0000FF (also blue) this increases choice in a bad way. But you offer #FF0000 (red) and #0000FF pens then you increase choice in a good way.
    Sometimes it isn’t the number of choices but the types of choices.

  7. #7 Marcia
    July 8, 2009

    When faced with a very limited choice, my immediate thought is that I might be able to find something of better value elsewhere.

  8. #8 Single Guy
    July 8, 2009

    In my younger days there were lots and lots of options for potential spouses, too many options for me to settle on just one. These days there seems to be no decent options at all. Guess I missed that crucial window of just the right number of options.

  9. #9 Eric Lund
    July 8, 2009

    It often helps to have a trusted guide when you are faced with lots of choices. That’s how I chose the person who redesigned my kitchen several years ago: I felt I could trust him to guide me through the choices, while other candidates seemed to be making too much of an effort to sell me something I wasn’t sure I wanted.

    @Greg and uber: iTunes has this wonderful feature called Ratings which can help you narrow your choices for playlists or for including on a limited capacity iPod. Give the songs you like most a five-star rating, and so on down to one star. Then choose from the highest rated songs in your collection. In uber’s case, he might be able to fill up his iPod with five-star songs–I can’t speak for him, but my library (a bit under 3000 songs) is about 15% five-star rated and 40% four-star rated (this is a selection bias; I tend not to buy songs I don’t like). Seldom do I put a song on a playlist if it has a lower rating than four stars: it pretty much has to be exactly the right song to fill a hole in the playlist. Once in a while I have gone back and uprated a song, but mostly I’m happy with the ratings I assigned back when I did a complete listen through of what was then in my iTunes library, or on first listening for songs I subsequently added to my collection.

  10. #10 M. B.
    July 8, 2009

    I use Consumer Reports – let them do the work! Then I take their top choices in the category I want and choose among those. That’s how we just chose our new air purifier.

  11. #11 Asher
    July 8, 2009

    Am I the only one who wants to know what pen they settled on?

  12. #12 Kevin H
    July 8, 2009

    I think how I deal with overwhelming choice is to first base my choices on abstract values that have a fairly limited number of choices. Choices such as LCD vs Plasma, 36″ vs 42″. Breaking it down that way allows you to throw off a lot of choices.

    Also, I wonder if there is a inter-subject relationship between working memory limits and number of choices they prefer.

  13. #13 Lilian Nattel
    July 8, 2009

    Keep the old tv. It’ll save you money and it’s better for the environment.

  14. #14 George A Guajardo
    July 8, 2009

    Great study, and fantastic comments! Asher, I too wonder what pen was the most popular. Not that is has anything to do with the results, but I am curious…

    As for the effect of choices, I suspect this is moderated by expertise. When you don’t know much about the product you are purchasing, the subtle differences between the selections seem, well subtle. However, expects in that domain can probably find value in those small differences. So, for novice purchasers, selection can be overwhelming. For expert purchasers, selection is probably not all that overwhelming.

  15. #15 Adamatus
    July 8, 2009

    As a recent alum who used to work in a lab down the hall from these folks, I have to point out it’s Dartmouth College, not University. As the great Daniel Webster put it, “It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college, and yet, there are those who love it.”

    Great little study, though.

  16. #16 Adamatus
    July 8, 2009

    As a recent alum who used to work in a lab down the hall from these folks, I have to point out it’s Dartmouth College, not University. As the great Daniel Webster put it, “It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college, and yet, there are those who love it.”

    Great little study, though.

  17. #17 George A Guajardo
    July 8, 2009

    By the way, this topic has pretty obvious implications for decision-making in the workplace. I wrote a little bit about it for my readers and would love any feedback you all could offer: http://deltaorg.wordpress.com/2009/07/08/more-on-the-paradox-of-choice/

  18. #18 Nigel
    July 8, 2009

    Sorry, but experiment does not make sense to me as described. You say the subjects were given the offer to buy at a discount after having selected the best pen. If that is right, I do not understand why the number of choices should have affected their buying at all. Surely the deterrent affect of having too many options arises because it is just too much cognitive work (and perhaps too anxiety provoking) to make a choice decision under those conditions. But the subjects here have already decided which pen is best before being confronted with the offer to buy. Under those conditions I do not see why there should be any effect of number of choices on buying decision whatsoever (or perhaps you might see buys always increasing with the number of choices available, since the best of a large sample of all the world’s types of pens is more likely to be one of the best pens in the world than the best of a small sample). Certainly the experimental situation is very different from one where you are confronted with choices that have immediately apparent costs and benefits for you, such as when you are actually considering buying something. In this experiment both costs and benefits only became apparent after the choice of the best was made.

    Furthermore, I am puzzled as to why more than a tiny handful of subjects should have decided to buy a pen at all, although it appears from the graph that even in the lowest group over 25% did so, and for the 10 choices group it was about 90%! A price of $1 is not an amazingly good deal on a pen, even if it is half normal price, and anyway, why buy a pen at all unless you actually need one? Aren’t most students, even at Dartmouth, still poor? (When I was a student, I could often find pens lying about for free. I think I very rarely bought one. Indeed, I rarely buy pens now either, despite their cheapness.)

    Conceivably the incentive to participate in the experiment at all was the chance to buy a pen at half price (although it does not say so), but in that case, if they were participating to get a cheap pen, why didn’t everyone buy? Anyway, I have checked the original paper, and Dave seems to have described the experiment correctly.

    As this experiment stands, I do not believe these results. The underlying hypothesis that there might be an optimal number of options seems reasonable enough (although I should think there might be a lot of variables that could affect what that number is in any particular circumstances) but I can only think that either the experiment is badly misdescribed (though, frankly, I cannot think of how it might have been set up differently to get results like these), or else the results are just faked.

  19. #19 Dave Munger
    July 9, 2009

    Nigel,

    I can assure you that I described the experiment accurately. I also don’t think there are many “poor” students at Dartmouth. According to this page only 48 percent of students received scholarships, which means that more than half the students could afford the $50K/year tuition out of pocket.

  20. #20 Joel
    July 9, 2009

    Uber – No one needs any sort of mp3 player, so why not get the one that holds everything? You could still make a favorites list or potentially save yourself the trouble. That comment reminds me of the person in the Verizon commercial where outwardly he’s saying he doesn’t need any of the features in some new phones but when thinking out loud he lusts after them. I find over and over friends who resist new technologies yet consistently adopt them down the line. There’s some negative perception of people who want desire otherwise useful technology. My experience with friends on facebook is that they often start out saying how stupid it is but sooner or later “check it out” and then are hooked like many of the rest of us. I’m no exception on that particular example, and I’ve often struggled with the ‘why?’…

    Dave – just went through the whole tv thing last month. I had a tv that I grew up with (about 25+ years old) that finally started to fail a few months ago (speakers mostly). I shopped everywhere, and ended up buying a high-end phillips model that was refurbished for the same price as the entry-level vizios and such you’ll find at wal-mart. VERY happy with the purchase. Check out tigerdirect.com

  21. #21 NMTucson
    July 9, 2009

    I was just talking with my son about the “tyranny of choice”, in this case in reference to buying air travel tickets. Back when a travel agent handled these things, the buyer had few choices and took more or less what the agent told them came close to their requested times. With Travelocity and Orbitz and Kayak, etc, you “get to” sift among hundreds of possible combinations of departure and arrival times and locations. After trying various itineraries for an hour or two, the mind boggles–you can’t find the perfect match and when you try to go back to one that sufficed, you can’t find it again either. Plus they put those little “Only 1 left at this price” messages up, just add to the pressure. It’s amazing anyone ever travels anymore at all!

    However, we do seem, as a culture, to cherish choice above efficiency at almost any cost. My right, right?

  22. #22 DinaFelice
    July 10, 2009

    I have ADD and frequently get overwhelmed when presented with an essentially infinite number of choices (“Dina, what restaurant do you want to go to?”) or when suddenly presented with a large number of choices under a time constraint (i.e. presented with a menu I don’t know at a restaurant).

    However, I also can be very picky. You see, while most places that serve soda have 5 to 7 choices available, I only drink diet sodas (for both weight and taste preference reasons). My favorite is Diet Coke, but I also like several other diet sodas, however I despise Diet Pepsi. The vast majority of these restaurants have only one diet option and it is either Coke or Pepsi. So even though they offer multiple options in the ‘soda’ category, I often find that I am limited to 1 or 0 options.

    My kid brother also can be picky…recently he wanted me to pick him up some specific pens. The store I went to had dozens of options, but none were the exact type he wanted…from my perspective (knowing what I wanted to get), I would have preferred having more options so I could get exactly what I wanted. However, had I been there picking up pens for myself, I might have been overwhelmed by the number of choices and wished for fewer.

  23. #23 MTGAP
    July 10, 2009

    Unfortunately, the brain is no good at optimal searching. When given more than about 15 choices, it can help to use a method similar to the quicksort algorithm. Try to eliminate large portions of choices at a time based on certain criteria. For example, say you have two hundred televisions to choose from. But if you restrict your choices to just screens of a particular size and within your budget range, it may narrow down the choices to about ten. Televisions can then be eliminated one by one.

    Another optimal strategy is the fitness function. Decide exactly what criteria you want and find a television that’s an exact match.

  24. #24 Lia
    July 10, 2009

    My boyfriend and I have different styles for making choices, know our differences, and argue frequently on exactly this subject.

    I immediately limit my choices, then choose from my subset. In a restaurant with a large menu, I decide if I want pasta, steak, seafood, or salad first, then choose from the subset. I might look at the rest of the menu for curiousity sake, but choosing from the whole thing would stress me. I do usually prefer cotton clothes because I find them more comfortable, but deep down, I think the real reason I insist on buying cotton clothes is because I’d be overwhelmed with choices if I allowed myself to choose from everything in the mall. That’s two example out of probably thousands.

    My boyfriend is the opposite. He has to know his options before he can begin. If he can’t decide, he seeks more options. We get into conflicts on purchases that involve input from both of us. It could be as small as a kitchen appliance. If we need a new toaster, he’ll go to every local store twice comparing prices and features. He’ll check Craig’s list and ebay. Since items can be sold out which changes the options, he’ll begin again several times. (Meanwhile, I’m going nuts.) If prices strike him as too high, he’ll weigh the possibility of doing without a toaster. If I suggest a cheap one, he’ll consider how long it will last compared to a better-made model.

    He says I’m rash in my decisions, and he’s probably right.

    For this reason, I’m uncomfortable with the conclusions of the experiment with the pen. It doesn’t take into account what the participants are like with choices in general.

    –Lia

  25. #25 Ian
    July 10, 2009

    I don’t buy the premise in your first para!

    You already know which songs (to an extent or another) are on your personal music player and you like all of them – or at least you like the bands/singers, so your chance of getting something at random which please you is high.

    You don’t know what’s coming next on the radio, and unless your taste is extremely eclectic, you’ll likely find most of the radio offerings aren’t to your liking.

    Wouldn’t that explain your behavior?

    Regarding the TV, I can’t believe you’re stumped: make the scientific choice! Lilian’s advice isn’t going to work unless your 15-year old TV was extremely advanced and can handle digital high def!

  26. #26 Nigel
    July 12, 2009

    Dave:

    I have looked at the original paper and I agree that your account of what it says is accurate. I also think it very likely that a properly designed experiment along these lines might lead to very similar conclusions. However, for the reasons I set out above, I find it extremely hard to believe that this experiment (if it was really as described by the authors) could have got the results claimed. Note that my argument does not turn upon the wealth or otherwise of Dartmouth students (though I doubt that even very rich people buy everything that happens to be offered to them, whether they want it or not).

    The main problem is that the offer to buy came after the choice of the best was already made. Under those conditions the effect supposedly being tested would not be operative, and I would expect to see either no significant difference in buying rate, or else, conceivably, an increase in buying rates with number of choices offered (perhaps, having put more effort into choosing, the subjects who has chosen from a wider array might be more attached to their eventual choice). The results reported, however, make no sense.

    One possible explanation (apart from outright scientific fraud) that occurs to me is that the results are due to an experimenter effect. We are not told much about how the offer to buy was presented, but given the setup described it seems likely to have been pretty informal and uncontrolled. Perhaps the pen salesperson, if they were aware of (or guessed at) the experimental hypothesis, put more sales pressure (possibly quite unconsciously) on those subjects who had been offered an intermediate number of choices, whom they expected to be more likely to buy. Experimenter effects of this sort are a well known pitfall in psychological experiments with human subjects, and good psychologists go to considerable pains to design their experiments so as to eliminate any possibility of their occuring, but there is no sign that this was done in this case.

    In any case, this paper should never have been published. It represents a failure of peer review.

  27. #27 lucklucky
    July 12, 2009

    Well i just repeat what Ian says. It at minimum sloppy to compare 5000 songs in your computer with every random thing that can appear in a radio station.

  28. #28 Lia
    July 13, 2009

    In general, I don’t care for advertising, but there’s one sort that particularly drives me up a wall. That’s the one where the advertiser tells me that I’m participating in scientific research (might benefit everybody), but it’s a manipulative trick to get my attention in an effort to sell me something (benefits them).

    That’s what these so-called researchers did. They pretended that they wanted to know which pen to order for their supply closet, but when I’ve helped them with their “research,” I learn that it was all to get me to buy their pen– and at a discount price! Talk about manipulative lying slime.

    I’d disregard this study.

    –Lia

  29. #29 Dave Munger
    July 14, 2009

    Lia, If you’re offended by the use of deception in studies, you’d be well-served by avoiding pretty much the whole field of social psychology

  30. #30 haile selassie
    July 14, 2009

    nigel;

    very few subjects of the study were shopping for a pen when they were accosted by the researchers. thus, their motivation to buy the pen is not related to their need for a pen, but rather that they truly believed that the selected pen is a good pen, a worthwhile pen, the right pen for them.

    this motivation is what the study demonstrates: there is an optimum number of options at which the decision-maker will feel personally invested in the decision. with too few options, the decision can be flippant; with too many options, the decision can be clinical. at 8-12 choices (in this study), the subject felt able to make a personal choice, rather than a choice based on objective criteria.

    i do agree, however, that this is a sloppy study, and that experimenter influence likely confounds the results. i would not disregard this study entirely, but i would disregard its qualitative aspects.

  31. #31 Bowen Tay
    July 16, 2009

    I think the problem is not so much as too many choices as uncertainty over the of one’s ability of making a fully informed choice. When all the factors are on the table, it’s easy to make a choice.

  32. #32 Nigel
    July 19, 2009

    haile selassie:
    their motivation to buy the pen is not related to their need for a pen, but rather that they truly believed that the selected pen is a good pen, a worthwhile pen, the right pen for them.

    this motivation is what the study demonstrates: there is an optimum number of options at which the decision-maker will feel personally invested in the decision. with too few options, the decision can be flippant; with too many options, the decision can be clinical. at 8-12 choices (in this study), the subject felt able to make a personal choice, rather than a choice based on objective criteria.

    That’s a fact is it?

    This explanation did occur to me, but I rejected it as too obviously absurd to mention. Are you seriously suggesting that these subjects got such a warm, fuzzy feeling about it when they selected a pen out of a group of 10 that it induced them to buy it? Not only that, but that it is was so significantly more warm and fuzzy than the feeling they got after selecting from a group of 9 or a group of 11 that it caused them to buy at significantly higher rates, and produce that nice curve? I do not believe it. If I was in this situation, I would certainly feel more invested in a choice I had had to work harder to make, i.e., the choice from a lot of alternatives, not a relatively easy choice from among 10. (Note, this is not the same as the situation that is allegedly being investigated here, but really is not, where you have the opportunity to select something to buy out of a range of alternatives, which is the situation in which people may pass on that opportunity if there is too wide an array of choices because making the decision is too hard.) Even then though, I think I would be unlikely to buy a pen I had no need for unless a lot of sales pressure was applied.

    This is a badly designed experiment on two levels. First of all it does not address the effect that it purports to be investigating, but, at best, a different, secondary effect (that may not actually exist). Secondly, the findings are almost certainly the effect of (confused and uncontrolled) experimenter expectations that influenced their efforts at salesmanship, rather than of the intended independent variable (number of choices presented).

  33. #33 Caligula
    July 19, 2009

    @Nigel: You’re not selling your point of view particularly well. I’d like the opportunity to choose between, say, 8-12 competing dissenting views.

    (Seriously, though–so far you haven’t said anything that makes me think the paper “never should have been published.” Design a better experiment, get it published, compare the two, and be done with it.)

  34. #34 Monado, FCD
    July 21, 2009

    I tend to do what Greg recommends [#1]. I find someone who has researched the problem and come up with an evaluation, and whose criteria are similar to mine, e.g. in a car I want transportation, not flash.

  35. #35 k8
    July 22, 2009

    I freeze when confronted with too many choices. I end up walking away upset with no decision having been made. Apparently this is not necessarily a character flaw, but perhaps my biology.

  36. #36 Tony W
    November 8, 2009

    Interesting. I just made this observaton to my wife on Friday.

    We were selecting the medical insurance coverage for next year. There are 81 combinations of benefits, all at different prices. The system doesn’t let you look at more than 3 at a time, so I built a spreadsheet and populated it with less than 1/3 of the possible choices.

    My wife, a CPA with a masters in finance, kept asking questions. I was building scenarios, figuring total costs (insurance + co-pay). After a while, she turned to me and said “Pick the one you think is best.”

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