Choice Overload

The Basic Idea

Applying to university can be overwhelming. Not only do you have to decide on your preferred program, but you also have to choose between universities that offer your program of choice. I applied to six schools: two schools as my “top choice” and four schools as my “backup”. My peers applied to a similar number of programs — one friend even applied to twelve! Why do we have such a hard time narrowing down our choices?

Choice overload, also known as “overchoice” or “the paradox of choice”, refers to the difficulty of making a choice when presented with many options, especially when all options seem to have equal value.1 More options is not always good: it can decrease our motivation to decide, decrease satisfaction with the final choice, and increase negative emotions like regret.

Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.

– Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less

History

The idea of choice overload originates from Jean Buridan, a 13th century French philosopher.1 He theorized that when organisms face two equally tempting options, they delay making a choice and eventually choose randomly. Buridan used the example of a donkey choosing between two piles of hay, so the concept of choice overload is sometimes known as “Buridan’s ass.”

In 1944, American psychologist Neal Miller demonstrated this choice overload phenomenon using experimental research: he found that letting go of an attractive option for another attractive option resulted in procrastination and cognitive conflict.2 Miller termed this finding the double approach avoidance competition. Following his discovery, psychologists Kurt Lewin and Leon Festinger proposed that choices among attractive, mutually exclusive options lead to more conflict, especially as the options become more similar.3 4 This idea was explored as part of the work on cognitive dissonance.

Polish psychiatrist Zbigniew Lipowski directly referenced Buridan in his 1970 article, “The conflict of Buridan’s ass or some dilemmas of affluence: The theory of attractive stimulus overload.” 5 Focusing on an overload of attractive choices in affluent industrial societies, Lipowski proposed that more options lead to confusion, anxiety, and an inability to choose. The more choices, the more conflict.

Despite its rich history, the term “choice overload” was only formally introduced by American writer and businessman Alvin Toffler, in his 1970 book, Future Shock.6 Toffler’s main argument was that because the industrial revolution accelerated people’s access to technology, people of the future would suffer from choice overload. Thus the term “future shock”: a social paralysis induced by rapid technological change.

An abundance of choices does not guarantee choice overload, however: recent literature on choice overload has identified some necessary preconditions:1

  1. A lack of familiarity with, or prior preferences for, the items presented in the choices. A negative relationship between the number of options and choice satisfaction only exists among people lacking familiarity with the choice domain.
  2. There is no obviously dominant option and the proportion of nondominated options are large. Otherwise, the decision would be easy, regardless of the number of options. For example, if you prefer ice cream over pizza and must choose between vanilla ice cream and 8 different types of pizza, you’d still opt for the ice cream.

Note that while having prior preferences or a dominant option might explain why people would suffer when faced with too many choices, it isn’t directly obvious why the lack of either prior preferences or a dominant option result in choice overload.1 That is why research has identified these as necessary preconditions, not sufficient preconditions.

People

  

Jean Buridan

Born in 1300, this French philosopher, logician, and scientific theorist defended the principle of causality.7 Causality refers to the relationship between two temporally simultaneous or successive events, such that the first event (the cause) brings about the other (the effect).8 Based on the idea of causality, Buridan suggested a modified version of moral determinism, declaring that people must will what presents itself as the greater good, although the will can delay judgements by suggesting a more detailed inquiry into the value of motives.7 The dilemma of a certain type of moral choice – between two identical items – led to his theory known as “Buridan’s ass.”

Alvin Toffler

An American writer, futurist, and businessman, Toffler is most known for his work discussing modern technologies.9 Toffler worked as an assistant editor for Fortune magazine where he also wrote articles on technological advancements, labor, and business management. Future Shock was Toffler’s first book about the future, published in 1970.6 The ideas presented became a worldwide best seller and sold over 15 million copies.10 In addition to coining the term “choice overload” in Future Shock, Toffler also presented the idea of adhocracy to define an emerging and necessary organizational system for a world of quickly advancing technology, and of societal impatience regarding the multilayered authority structures of the typical hierarchy.11

Future Shock was only the first book in Toffler’s trilogy, followed by The Third Wave in 1980 and Powershift in 1990.9 The subsequent books explored the idea of confusional breakdowns, such that intense societal, political, and technological changes would produce visible and measurable negative effects, such as increased crime, drug use, and alienation. The Third Wave was especially popular in China, distributed to schools nationwide10 and the center of conferences held by the Prime Minister.9 As a result, Toffler is considered to be one of fifty foreigners who shaped modern China.12

Consequences

Continuing the appearance of choice overload in popular media, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less was published in 2004 by American psychologist Barry Schwartz.13 Schwartz’s writing was based in psychological research on the ways happiness is affected by the success or failure of goal achievement. In terms of consumer activity, Schwartz argued that reducing the number of choices can greatly reduce shopper anxiety. The paradox, then, is how having many more choices is actually perceived to be a problem, due to our obsession with making the “right” choice.

The rise of research on choice overload has prompted some researchers to consider why having so many choices is negative.1 Perhaps having more choices makes the differences between attractive options smaller, especially as we accumulate more information about the options.14 Having so many choices to sort through can also be draining in terms of time and effort,13 so what if we choose the second-best option? If two top choices are believed to both be equally valuable, then there is less pressure to spend more time on an informed decision.15 As the attractive options get more similar, even justifying one choice over the rest can get difficult.16 While multiple explanations have been offered and tested, the takeaway is that there are researchers who support theories surrounding choice overload.

Regarding its relevance in research, choice overload has both important theoretical and practical implications.1 Theoretically, it challenges many choice models found in psychology and economics. These models hold that increasing the number of options should not force decision makers into negative situations, as we should make rational decisions that will maximize our outputs.17 Choice overload also violates the axiom of regularity, a tenet of choice theory which holds that the addition of an option to a choice set should never increase the probability of selecting an option.18 Yet, the nature of choice overload says that having more options will increase the chances of random decision making, baselessly increasing the probability of selecting the final option.1

Practically, accounting for the expected decrease in motivation to make a choice or the satisfaction with one’s final choice is important for marketers and policy makers alike.1 These parties typically provide continually increasing options to choose from: drawing from research on choice overload and appropriately reducing available options could boost their success.

Controversies

One important caveat of choice overload is that it only applies when we make decisions for ourselves.19 However, the effect is reversed when choosing for other people: in these cases, being presented with many options is no longer demotivating. This is because when deciding for ourselves, we’re more focused on preventing negative outcomes. On the other hand, we’re more focused on promoting positive outcomes when deciding for others. Thus, when deciding for others, we want to reduce errors of omission and ensure that we haven’t neglected any valuable options. When choosing for ourselves, we want to reduce errors of commission and ensure that we appropriately evaluate all possibilities. These findings highlight that choice overload is context dependent. The target of our decisions can alter our motivations and the process of choosing.

As with many theories, some researchers outright disagree with choice overload. They contend that reducing options – as suggested by the implications of choice overload – will impede on people’s freedom to choose.20 Some researchers also emphasize the advantages that come with larger choice sets, such as increasing the probability that people can end up with a satisfying decision, catering to individuality.21 Why else would retailers who offer more choices appear to have a competitive advantage?22 23 If choice overload indeed generalizes to personal decision making, retailers should see their sales increase by reducing the available options. Yet some researchers have not found this effect.24 25 On the contrary, studies have shown that having finer distinctions within product lines can increase perceptions of a brand’s quality, thereby increasing desirability.26

Case Study

Early research

A piece on choice overload would not be complete without discussing the well known “jam experiments” by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper.27 These two American psychologists conducted a series of experiences in 2000 amidst rising interest in the possible negative consequences of having too much choice.

In the first study, the researchers set up a tasting table filled with exotic jams at an upscale grocery store in Mento Park, California.27 The table either displayed a limited assortment of 6 flavors of jam, or a large assortment of 24 flavors. The researchers wanted to measure customers’ original attraction to the display, as well as their subsequent purchasing behavior, so everyone who approached the table received a coupon for $1 off their purchase of any jam flavor.

Consistent with ideas that people are tempted by the possibility of many options, the researchers found that more people approached the table when it displayed 24 flavors of jams.27 However, when it came to actual buying behaviors, customers who saw the assortment of 6 flavors were 10 times more likely to make a purchase, compared to customers who saw the assortment of 24 flavors. These findings were consistent with choice overload: while the original presentation of many options was appealing, having to decide between that many flavors decreased customers’ motivations to choose.

In another study, 197 students at Stanford University took the opportunity to write a two-page essay for extra credit, where they were either given 6 or 30 essay topics to choose from.27 The researchers found that 74% of the students who chose from 6 topics completed the essay, while 60% of the students who chose from 30 topics completed the essay. The researchers also found that those who chose from 6 topics were judged to have produced significantly higher quality writing.

Thus, the findings from the essay study confirmed and expanded on the researchers’ jam findings.27 Both studies suggest that having many more choices doesn’t necessarily result in more motivation. In fact, choice overload seems to have the opposite effect! Additionally, students in the second study seemed to perform better when presented with less choices, which could subsequently influence satisfaction. Iyengar and Lepper’s research set the foundation for contemporary research on choice overload, as explicitly defined by Toffler.

Related TDL Content

Choice architecture

Because making choices is hard, we rely on defaults and subtle cues to help us out. Choice architects recognize this capacity for our choices to be influenced by how they’re presented—and use it to their advantage. Check out this article if you’re curious about how choice architects design the environment to influence our choices, as part of nudge theory.

Decision fatigue

We often feel tired when tackling a difficult task, and making choices is no exception. In fact, our cognitive abilities can literally get fatigued as we’re presented with more information and have more choices to make. The quality and quantity of our decisions tend to have a negative relationship, such that as quantity increases, quality will decrease. If you’re interested in learning more, take a look at this piece on decision fatigue.

Sources

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  3. Lewin, K. (1951). Field Theory in Social Science. Harper & Row.
  4. Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford University Press.
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  6. Toffler, A. (1970). Future Shock. Random House.
  7. Jean Buridan. (2021, January 1). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jean-Buridan
  8. Causation. (2009, February 2). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/causation
  9. Schneider, K. (2016, June 29). Alvin Toffler, author of “Future Shock,” dies at 87. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/30/books/alvin-toffler-author-of-future-shock-dies-at-87.html
  10. Henry, D. (2016, June 29). Alvin Toffler, author of best-selling “Future Shock” and “The Third Wave,” dies at 87. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/alvin-toffler-author-of-best-selling-future-shock-and-the-third-wave-dies-at-87/2016/06/29/0d63748c-3e09-11e6-80bc-d06711fd2125_story.html
  11. Desveaux, J. A. (2019, October 1). Adhocracy. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/adhocracy#ref1180927
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