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
- 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.
- 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.