Excessive Choice

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.


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I think the cereals are usually grouped by manufacturer (Kellog, Post, General Mills, etc.). However, there is still some organization by type: 'healthy' cereals are generally on the upper shelves, at adult eye level. 'Kids cereals' tend to be on the middle & lower shelves, where kids can see them (and grab them and throw them into Mom's shopping cart).

What I wonder is, why do we agonize over picking the "best" in situations of excess choice? What drives us to feel like we need to agonize over finding the 'perfect' choice, instead of being content with a 'good enough' choice?

You have even more, and better, options. Buy cereal grains (wild rice, brown rice, wheat, rye, spelt) in bulk and cook up batches with an automatic rice cooker. Cool, store in portion-sized refrigerator containers, and refrigerate (or freeze). Warm up in a microwave oven, eat as hot cereal, or add to other foods.

Whole grains take a bit of chewing and take a long time to digest, so there is no sugar rush. You also get a nice bit of vegetable protein and a lot of indigestible fiber.

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I wonder if the choice curve is bell shaped - ie, would 2-choice people be more or less happy than 6-choice people?

>What drives us to feel like we need to agonize over finding the 'perfect' choice, instead of being content with a 'good enough' choice?

That's a good question, qetzal. I wonder whether this is a biological or cultural issue -- would a person from a community with limited resources be so hindered by more choices?

I just went to dinner with a friend who agonized over what to order for 10 minutes before deciding. Her dinner came, and then she changed her mind and asked for something else. Maddening :) The friend happened to be resourced-deprived at the time (hadn't had time for lunch, and we ate dinner at 8pm), and I think the anticipation of a perfect meal made it worse. Would people be so bothered by the extra choices if the value of the reward hadn't been overinflated by the tantalizing descriptions? Maybe increased reward potential makes the decisions even more difficult -- in which case I'd be arguing that this is a biological and not a cultural issue.

Goods in supermarkets are arranged in large part according to the supplier's marketing budget. Some spots on the shelves are just better than others. (Such is the belief of the marketting gurus, anyway.)

I had two questions. One do the groups need to be labeled? You could have a set of bars, organized by something obvious like color, would that work? That has relevance to your cereal isle issue.

Also, if there is a long delay between choice and consumption does that change things? This also is quite relevant to the cereal isle as I doubt many people break open the box right in the middle of the supper market.

I think this (I call it menu freeze) is very closely related to short-term memory buffering.

In the WayBack (tm) time, I wrote a small paper in my CS class on the effect of menu choice distribution on the time to complete a task. Not quite so far back in that I had an IBM PC XT and a wonderful spreadsheet program called Frameworks (Ashton Tate, long since extinct). This allowed me to construct programmatically different menu distributions to present to subjects, and also to time their performance, without the bones being visible to them. Result? A nice Bell-curve centered on 3 - 4 items per menu level. Rapid drop-off between 7 - 10 items. Of course, the choice of chunking categories was not auto-generated and certainly affects comprehension speed, but for a 2 week assignment not too shabby.

So I would go with the difficulty of keeping a selection in short term memory along with evaluations of same. A very similar effect to the dramatic slow-down of your computer (see Vista upgrades) when physical RAM is fully consumed and the software starts getting paged so swap disk.

By GrayGaffer (not verified) on 29 Jul 2008 #permalink

I have always thought that the fewer choices = less stress, less buyer remorse was more responsible for the success of Costco than the huge quantities and bulk prices. You know you are getting merchandise of at least decent quality and price, so instead of agonizing over the choice among 40 different cereals of 20 differnt peanut butter brands, you just grab the industrial size case of the one kind they sell.

By Mike Mason (not verified) on 29 Jul 2008 #permalink

Would you like to eat chocolate 3 times per day to promote good health?

No. Actually.

So...what is the best number of choices? and what variables affect that value? thats what we need to know next.

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 29 Jul 2008 #permalink

I wonder if there are potential political ramifications to these studies. For instance, Republicans seem very big on giving us "more choices" in everything from health insurance to retirement accounts to schools we can send our children to. But might "excessive choice" in these areas, as well as in those addressed by the studies cited, also be counterproductive? Speaking for myself, I like a relatively small number of good options to choose from. I like to keep it simple. Maybe that's one reason why I'm a Democrat. :-)

@Steve: yes there are certainly political ramifications. In the UK it's been discussed in terms of pension options - there is some evidence that the more choices people are given, the less likey they are to make any pension provision at all. Which is a serious issue.

By Hilary PhD (not verified) on 30 Jul 2008 #permalink

Childcare workers in daycare centres (and likely most mothers) have known this for at least forty years. Children get the most satisfaction out of playing with toys when the selection is limited and the toys are categorized in areas by type of play. Too many toy choices, and especially uncategorized (examples: trucks on the same shelf as computer toys, dolls mixed in with sand toys) leads to stress and conflict.

Consumers are right to dislike the 'excessive choices' often presented to them; they are most often a way by vendors to make the real price of their product unintelligible and un-comparable to competitor's products.
Most obvious is this in new car sales; the numerous options and add-ons are designed to extract more money from buyers (and it is well-known that often two identical cars sold on the same day at the same dealership had vastly different prices).--
Another example is (land-line and mobile) telephone services with numerous calling plans, bundled with extras, and now internet services and cable TV (and teaser introductory rates, and early-termination fees). If you menace the service rep that you'd now go to another company, suddenly a cheaper rate/plan can be found, but getting there requires too much time and work by the consumer.--
The 'excessive choice' in health insurance allows health insurance companies to segregate their customers by risk, and drop the sickest (or charge them excessive premiums).--
(So here is a rational basis to the behavior described in the study, even if it was an experiment, not a market situation).

While the adults stand there contemplating those Apenuts, those kids are situated underneath grabbing those Uucky
Charms for the marshmellows only and even when they grow up, those little beige circles float in the milk after breakfast with no colorful specs left anywhere. When all is
said and done - the uucky is left and the charm is gone.

By Lee Pirozzi (not verified) on 30 Jul 2008 #permalink

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I try to follow this simple advice: don't let best be the enemy of better/good. I used to get paralyzed by trying to always pick the best choice (or make the leap into eating only the healthiest food) and it's really paralyzing! Now I just decide instinctually rather than elaborate pros and cons lists, and I'm much happier.

I have personally experienced cereal-choice-as-overwhelming. I lived in the antarctic for a year and when I got home I'd "forgotten" what cereals I liked (or the fact they could put cookies in a cereal box and pretend it's for breakfast. Why not just eat some cookies for breakfast, folks?), leading me to spend at least an hour in the cereal aisle reading all the boxes the first few times I went shopping. I don't even think I wound up buying anything in the end. I'm sure peace corps volunteers have similar reactions.

I think daily two to three healthy chocolates are enough to keep you on diet. What if you knew there was a chocolate that not only tastes incredible, but more importantly is extremely healthy.

This seems to have implications for navigation design and the structure of websites. We know that drilling down in hierarchical categories can feel tedious and is not a great user experience. But having everything be a free for all also isn't good.

I wonder if there are ways that we can use integrated search and browse, where the browse is offering smaller amounts of categories to help folks find things. Kind of like jumping to a lily pad, using a small number of categories to orientate, and then deciding if I want to jump to another lily pad or go deeper. Interesting stuff!

Navigation: within the box, the navigational choices are a significant factor to the perceived usability of a website, yes. But one thing my little experiment pointed out to me was that any hierarchical navigational scheme is insufficient: they rely on a single rigid predetermined categorization of the site contents. And (hypothesis: anybody have confirmation or falsification of this?) users find this easy or hard depending on how close the site designer's categorization preferences match theirs.

I am coming to prefer an associational organization in theory, but the problem is I have yet to find or formulate an effective way of doing this. In the first place, it relies on good user modeling coupled with site design that allows for straight-forward page meta-tags mining, then beyond that if and as the site gets more access, updating the user model of the site with personalized explicit and inferred tags.

Basically, I am now strongly in favor of what I could call "Intent-oriented" navigation, with multiple paths to any given destination, but with the paths pruned according to what one is seeking. Can't get past the need for telepathic software yet, though.

In some loose respects, Google style searches, by user provided keywords, with the site linkage relevances included, is a start. But it takes time for any given search to refine the keywords list and association strengths till a short enough list of hits that actually contain the sought for info results.

In writing this, I am thinking there is a half-way point that could lend itself to a browser plug-in. Hmmm.

By GrayGaffer (not verified) on 31 Jul 2008 #permalink

Having too many kinds of chocolate to choose from is a human tragedy on an appalling scale, and requires a political solution. They should bring back communism so we can all end this agony as soon as possible.

By Daniel Earwicker (not verified) on 01 Aug 2008 #permalink

Has anyone done this with older people? It seems to me that learning to cope with a bewildering array of choices is one of the things we learn to do better as we get older.

The first example that springs to my mind of a context where the balance between too little choice and too much is important, is that of game-playing. Some games make me feel overwhelmed because at each turn there are too many possible moves, hence too many choices (I think that's one reason why I've never enjoyed Chess). When I invent a game, such as this solitaire thingy of mine, one of the factors that always plays a part in its design is the balance between having enough choices without having too many. But it's impossible to tailor that to everyone's tastes.

Seems to me we use heuristics to choose cereal... I choose what I have had before and find satisfying. I know something else might be slightly better, but given the array of choices, it would take me a long time to find and I would likely have to deal with a bunch of average cereals along the way. The simple explanation for why they aren't better organized is profit. Our heuristics incorporate marketing and branding as well as our experience and personal preferences. If we satisfice to a well known brand, the profitable stay that way.

How funny to end the article with the cereal example. I was thinking about this one time when I had a German exchange student staying with me and we went grocery shopping. I sent her to the cereal aisle to pick out whatever she wanted. Some time had passed, seemed like more than enough time to choose and I began to wonder if she got lost in our supermarket so I went looking for her. There she stood in the cereal aisle with a look of confusion on her face as I approached her. She turned to look at me and said "Why are there so many choices?" I just grabbed a box and took the poor dear out of there to clear her head. I've never been able to visit the cereal aisle the same ever since.

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