Having lots of choices is one of the biggest things that separates our modern existence from the lives of our ancestors. Up until very recently in human history, most people’s paths in life were more or less predetermined: few individuals had much say in what job they would have as an adult, or whether or not they would get married, or whether or not they would have children. In a harsh and unforgiving environment, being choosy about what kind of foods you would eat, or how you dressed, could result in you winding up dead.
Life in the modern world couldn’t be more different. A lot has changed: industrial and technological advancements have made it possible to manufacture more and more products, and to import others to regions they never would have reached before; we have shifted to a free market economic system, where alternatives proliferate and compete with one another; and, at least in the Western world, we have evolved culturally to prize individual freedom and autonomy over nearly everything else.
There is a widespread assumption that more choice equals more freedom, and more freedom is always, unambiguously, a good thing. But the empirical evidence on choice overload contradicts this idea: in many cases (though not universally), more variety makes our lives harder and less pleasant. As psychologist Barry Schwartz has argued, our approach to life is so rooted in this individualist ethos that we struggle to see how choice overload is harming us. The effects of this bias go beyond complicating our decision-making process: it also has a big impact on our affective (emotional) experience, decreasing our satisfaction with the choices we make and increasing the likelihood that we will regret those choices.
We have limited cognitive resources
Choice overload gets its name from the paralyzing effect it has on our decision-making processes: the more variety there is, the harder it becomes for us to choose. Not only does this make the experience feel more draining but it also makes us more likely to choose nothing—to put off making a decision entirely, because we feel so overwhelmed.
In a study on the effects of choice on motivation, researchers set up a jam tasting booth at an upscale grocery store. On some days, they displayed a limited selection of 6 flavors; on others, they put out a much more extensive assortment of 24 flavors. Customers were allowed to taste as many jams as they wanted. They were then given a coupon, valid for one week, that entitled them to a small discount on the jam. The coupons were marked with code numbers so that the researchers would know which customers had cashed them in. In the end, 30% of customers who visited the smaller booth came back to buy some jam, compared to a meager 3% of customers who saw the booth with the larger selection.3
This finding is totally counterintuitive: most people would expect that, with a larger array of jams available to them, there would be a higher chance that customers would find an option they liked and would want to return to buy something. But in actuality, more choices just means more decisions that we have to make, and making decisions uses up mental energy—of which we only have a limited supply. When we don’t have the cognitive resources to weigh all of our options, we can end up simply abandoning the effort of making a choice. Research has also shown that when the decision is made more difficult—for example, by adding time constraints or choosing products that differ from each other on many different variables that need to be evaluated—people experience greater choice overload.1
The more choices, the higher our expectations
Alexander Pope once said, “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” As we have all experienced at some point, great expectations can be toxic to our actual experience of the world: the higher we have set the bar going into something, the easier it is for us to be let down when reality doesn’t measure up.
Research has shown that this mechanism, known as “expectation-disconfirmation,” is a big driver of choice overload. The more options we have to choose from, the more confident we feel that, somewhere in the bunch, we’ll be able to find something that fits our preferences exactly. This gets our expectations higher than they would be given less variety, setting us up for more disappointment.
There is experimental evidence to back up this claim. In one study, participants were asked to select a camcorder for a coworker. The coworker had specific preferences for the camera’s weight, resolution, memory, and zoom. Participants were given a catalog that included either 8 or 32 different camcorders to choose from. After they picked a model, they filled out questionnaires about their experience. To gauge expectation disconfirmation, participants were asked about how their chosen camcorder measured up to their expectations, and had participants give it a rating on a scale of 1 (“much worse than I expected”) to 9 (“much better than I expected”).
As expected, participants who received the larger catalog experienced more choice overload and were less satisfied with their choices. They also rated their choice of camcorder significantly lower on the expectation disconfirmation question. In other words, the more products people had to choose from, the worse they felt their chosen camcorder stacked up with their initial expectations.4
Some of us are maximizers
We all know people vary widely in their personalities, so it’s no surprise that they also take various approaches to making decisions. Some people are what we call maximizers: people who feel compelled to find the very best option available to them. Maximizers need to compare all their choices and evaluate alternatives on a whole host of attributes before they feel ready to make a decision. Other people are satisficers: folks who are just looking for something that meets their basic requirements. Satisficers are content with “good,” and don’t feel the need to seek out “the best.”5
Maximizing isn’t inherently a bad thing: it can lead people to compare all their options more systematically than they might otherwise, which can help them make more informed decisions. But in a world of near-infinite, choice, maximizing can create a number of problems, driving us to seek out more and more alternatives for our consideration—and pushing us into choice overload. Meanwhile, satisficers aren’t necessarily bothered by an abundance of options, because they have no compulsion to research each and every one of them.6
We don’t always know exactly what we’re looking for
On the flip side, another thing that fuels choice overload is preference uncertainty: not knowing what qualities we want in our final choice. If we don’t have much knowledge about the things we’re trying to choose from, it becomes more overwhelming when we’re faced with a huge assortment of them. Supporting this explanation, research has shown that, when consumers have expertise relating to their decision, the effect of choice overload is reversed: experts have a harder time when they have fewer options, not more.1
One study, conducted by Maureen Morrin and colleagues looked at the rates of enrollment in 401(k) plans. When investors with low levels of financial knowledge were offered a larger number of funds to choose from, about 65% of them decided to participate in one—compared to 88% of people who had high financial knowledge. But when people were offered a small number of funds, the numbers were reversed: 65% of high-knowledge investors participated, while 80% of low-knowledge investors did.7