Nowadays we have the fortune (or misfortune) of being able to choose a product out of hundreds of brands with various different characteristics; some would think the more, the better. And it is because of this “The more, the better” mind frame that we have so many options available for almost everything in our lives. This is why we can find entire supermarket aisles dedicated to just one type of product like milk or cookies, stores with hundreds of similar mobile phones, and even crucial life decisions tend to be full of options like which career to choose.
Just don’t get me wrong, having a big range of options is not always a bad thing. An increased amount of options available makes for easier access to specialised products that we need for a certain uncommon project or idea that we want to carry on, like going to a paper store, and finding the Kodak photographic paper with matt detail that we wanted so much. But what happens if we don’t really know what we want, and we went just looking for photographic paper? Then we’d probably have to deal with the issue of facing a complex decision.
It’s been proved that when a person is undecided and the number of alternatives increases, the subject experiences conflict and tends to postpone the decision, look for other alternatives and end up choosing the default option, or simply not choosing anything at all. When the available options and information increases, people are prone to considering fewer options and to analysing less information. The tasks of selecting, evaluating and processing information are depend on the number of options we face. When a choosing process gets complicated (increased available options), people tend to rely on heuristics to simplify the decision-making process. And sometimes, if the decision-making process is tedious enough, we simply turn to an elimination strategy to choose what we think we “really want”.
To prove that having a great range of options can be demotivating, Iyengar and Lepper (2000) made a study involving daily situations and products. We now analyse their findings in the next paragraph.
The first study was made in a supermarket, where consumers could approach a display with a limited (6) or increased (24) selection of flavoured jams. The idea was to measure the attraction of clients towards the stand, and the subsequent purchase behavior. To discard any flavor-bias, the two most traditional flavors and the two most exotic ones, were taken out from the sample.
During the experiment, consumers that approached the display could taste as many jams as they wanted, and a discount coupon was given to them to measure the subsequent purchasing behavior. If a costumer wished to buy a jam, he/she had to go to the shelf to take it, where he would face the 28 jams. From the total number of people that encountered the display, more people felt attracted and stopped by the increased selection (60%), while in the limited selection only 40% stopped to have a look. Surprisingly there were no significant differences in the number of jams that they tested, as in the increased display, consumers tasted 1.5 jams in average, and in the limited one they tested 1.38 jams. Regarding the subsequent purchasing action, 30% of consumers in the limited sample decided to buy a jam, while only 3% decided to buy a jam in the extensive sample. Consumers exposed to limited options proved they were more inclined to buy a jam than those who were exposed to increased options. An extensive variety of options can appear attractive to consumers (and to marketers), but it can reduce consumer willingness to buy.
The second study was made in a university, and it also consisted of a limited (6) and an increased (30) selection, but in this case it involved the sampling of chocolates. The goal of the experiment was to measure students' initial satisfaction with the decision-making process, their expectations regarding the choices they made, their subsequent satisfaction, and their purchasing behavior. To measure the initial satisfaction, expectations and the subsequent satisfaction, participants were asked to fill a questionnaire before tasting the chocolate and after tasting it. To measure purchasing behavior, the participants had to choose one of two rewards, $5 dollars or a box of chocolates from their selection with a $5 dollars value.
Participants in the increased selection group felt that the number of available chocolates (options) was “too many”, while participants in the limited group felt that it was “about right”. In contrast with the limited group, the participants in the increased group enjoyed more the decision-making process, but at the same time they found it more difficult and frustrating. In both groups it was clear that despite the difference in available options, participants were sure that they would like the chocolate they chose. After tasting the chocolate, the limited group significantly enjoyed more the chocolate than the extensive group. Regarding the purchase decision, the limited group was more prone to receiving (buying) a box of chocolates (48%) than the extensive group (12%).
Apart from enjoying the possibility of choosing among different options, the participants of the extensive group showed more regret and less satisfaction with their decision, making them more likely to accept the money instead of the chocolates.
Having a great number of options to choose presents diverse opportunities to exploit, which can make us feel that we have control over what we want, but at the same time it makes us feel more responsible for our good and bad decisions, making us feel insecure and questioning our own choices, which can be frustrating. Having a limited number of options can make us feel more secure, as it’s easier to have control over them, and we can easily compare them with things we already know and not with what “we could have chosen”, increasing the satisfaction of our decisions.
Sometimes product diversification in a category has grown to excess because of fierce competition in the market. We definitely not advocate for firms to limit improvements and innovation in their products to just one single version, but what about thinking in simply reducing them; as Robert Browning said in one of his poems, and as Mies van der Rohe did with his architecture… less is more.
If Irrational Cosi had less ice-cream options to choose from, do you think that he would give himself a break for the raisins ice-cream that he chose?
Reference: Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 79, No. 6 , 995-1006.