Sheena Iyengar has done some very cool studies on the debilitating effects of excessive choice. In one experiment, she ushered some undergraduates into a room with a variety of Godiva chocolates on a table. The students were then given vivid descriptions of each candy. They learned, for example, that the “Grand Marnier Truffle” consists of a “luxurious milk chocolate butter cream with a hint of liquor, housed in a dark chocolate shell and rolled in cocoa powder.” After being told about all of their delectable options, the students chose the best sounding chocolate and rated it on a scale of one to seven. In the final part of the experiment, the students were offered a small box of Godiva chocolates or a five dollar cash payment as compensation.
The students were divided into two groups. The first was the “limited choice” condition: they were only given six different chocolates to choose from. The second group, in contrast, saw a table covered with thirty different flavors, the full Godiva range. In theory, the group with more chocolate options should enjoy their chocolates more, since everybody could choose their favorite kind of chocolate. Don’t like Grand Marnier? Then get the cognac truffle. Don’t like liquor in your candy? Get the dark chocolate ganache. It was an ideal maximizing situation.
But all the different options didn’t help. In fact, they made things much worse. Students only given six chocolates to choose from were happier with their choices than students offered thirty different choices. They thought their chocolates were much tastier. They were also four times as likely to choose a box of chocolates instead of cash at the end of the experiment. Less choice resulted in more post-choice satisfaction.
Iyengar argues that having more alternatives detracts from our pleasure for two reasons. The first reason is that all the superfluous options require lots of cognitive effort. We have to keep all the different chocolate flavors in our short-term memory, and then try figure out which chocolate we would most enjoy. Choosing a truffle becomes hard work, and all that work makes the actual truffle less enjoyable. The second problem with “excessive choice” is that it causes us to question our decision. We might select the Grand Marnier truffle, but then wonder about the cappuccino bonbon. We become acutely aware of all the chocolates we didn’t choose. More possibilities means more regret.
Now Iyengar has published a new study showing that one way to combat the effects of excessive choice is to group items into categories. It turns out that even useless categories make people happier with their choices.
61 college students were led into one of two simulated magazine stores.
Each “store” had the same 144 magazines, but those in the first store were grouped into three categories, using plaques on the shelves. Magazines in the second store were separated into 18 categories, like “computing,” “crossword” and “bridal.” When the students were later asked to estimate the variety of magazines available, those who visited the second store gave higher answers than those who visited the first store.
In another study, students who chose from a coffee menu liked their choices better when the menu grouped the coffees into categories, even if the names were meaningless — for example, “Lola’s.”
Consider the cereal aisle of the supermarket. As far as I can tell, there is no logic to the placement of cereals. Grapenuts are right next to Lucky Charms which are next to the full Kashi range. Instead of this haphazard organization – I always get totally overwhelmed by my cereal options – why not arrange the cereals by type, so healthy cereals are in one section, kid cereals (my favorite) are in another area, etc. This way I would be better able to navigate my breakfast possibilities.