We live in a world with innumerable choices. Look around, and you will see each and every place filled with choices for you to choose from. Each products has sub types which again have variations in them. A supermarket can be the best example to analyse this. A typical supermarket carries more than 30,000 items. That’s a lot to choose from. And more than 20,000 new products hit the shelves every year, almost all of them doomed to failure. (Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less)
The Paradox of Choice started with the famous jam experiment conducted in 2000 by Sheena S. Iyengar (Columbia University) and Mark R. Lepper (Stanford University). They both published a study entitled “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 79 (2000)). In their paper, they discussed the two experiments they conducted in grocery stores. They set up 2 different displays of jam for about five hours to see the ordinary consumers would react in terms of tasting and purchasing. In one display, they set out 24 different exotic flavours of jam while in another, they set out only 6 varieties.
They found out that in both cases, the consumers tasted or sampled about the same number of varieties of the jams- about 1.50 but the “…consumers [who] were initially exposed to limited choices proved considerably more likely to purchase the product than consumers who had initially encountered a much larger set of options.” (Id. at 997.)
According to them, a limited number of choices ended up increasing sales.
I know that this is a complete different perspective from that we have of increased choices. To all of us, increase in choices is a boon and leads to better judgements since we get more products to choose from. But is it really so?
Has it ever happened to you that every time you buy a product from, suppose, a mall, which has innumerable choices and variations among products, that you regret your decision after a while, or maybe the very second you buy it? Maybe if you had searched more, you would have found a better product? This happens to me every time I shop for a gift for a friend. The reason for this could be that an increase in choices around us increases our expectations about those choices. These expectations rise so much that they are not realistic anymore. People start having unrealistic expectations with the increase in choice. Therefore, increased in number of choice does not give us more control. In fact, it gives us an overwhelming feeling and we are unable to cope with it.
So what makes us happy?
It is observed that people are generally happier when they are close to family, involved in religious communities and with good friends than those who are not. Therefore, being connected to others is better for the subjective wellbeing than being rich. It is also observed that close relations actually put restrictions on us- it limits our choices to some extent. For example; being with your family would mean you have to confide to the family norms, which in turn mean certain restrictions over our activities. That means people are happier with restrictions than those who do not have any restrictions over them. (Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less)
So does that mean more choices are bad? Certainly not. Maybe we should consider the possibility that we might actually be better off with lesser choices in our hands. ‘Less choice’ and not ‘no choice’. In fact, consumers actually repel the idea of no choice and when just provided with a single option, they tend to not make any choice even if there is the only product that they wanted to buy in the first place. This is called as the ‘Single-Option Aversion’. According to a Daniel Mochon in the Journal of Consumer Research, Inc., single-option aversion is an increase in consumer’s desire to search when faced with a single option. According to him, this effect can lead to a product being chosen more often when competing alternatives are included in the choice set, which contradicts the Paradox of Choice completely. This shows how our lives are dependent on choices, and that we will face high frustration if not given a choice. That means frustration with no choice, and frustration with many choices. So what should a consumer do?
Barry Schwartz, the author of ‘The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less’ in his article “Choice and Its Vicissitudes: A Lesson in How Science Works” talks about the ‘sweet spot’. According to him, the trick is to find the middle ground- the “sweet spot”- that enables people to benefit from variety and not be paralyzed by it. He says that choice is good, but there can be too much of a good thing, and that should be avoided by the consumers.
Obviously this paradox, like all others, is not free of criticism. Derek Thompson, in his article More Is More: Why the Paradox of Choice Might Be a Myth in 2013 called the paradox of choice a ‘complete hogwash’. He stated that the famous jam experiment was conducted again and the researchers completely failed to replicate the experiment:
After designing 10 different experiments in which participants were asked to make a choice, and finding very little evidence that variety caused any problems, Scheibehenne and his colleagues tried to assemble all the studies, published and unpublished, of the [paradox of choice]. (Thompson, 2013)
He states that the average of all these studies suggests that offering lots of extra choices seems to make no important difference either way. That is occasionally, you might find the results that agree to the paradox. Overall, says Scheibehenne, “If you did one of these studies tomorrow, the most probable result would be no effect.”
The paradox of choice is thus a very controversial concept. The arguments both in favour and against this paradox make both researchers and consumer psychologists confused as to how, when and why this paradox occurs, even if it does. There are many questions and doubts regarding this paradox. Perhaps, more studies in this area might give us an answer to these questions and help us maximize our satisfaction, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Even with loopholes in this concept, it is hard to forgo such an important study that can be practically used in everyday life of a consumer, helping them make everyday choices and possibly make positive changes in this world of innumerable choices.