Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

The downside of 31 flavours

September 30th, 2010

Here’s an easy question: If you want people to buy your product or participate in your program or help your cause, you should give them as many different options as possible, right?

Oddly enough, no. In many circumstances, having too many choices reduces the likelihood of a person making any choice at all.

In general, of course, having a choice is a positive thing. Lots of psychological studies (not to mention common sense) have told us that giving people options makes them happier and more motivated. We’d all rather pick something than have it forced on us.

However, about a decade ago, researchers Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper noticed that all the studies that had been done in this field had compared having a few choices to having none at all. Nobody knew whether the number of choices made a difference. So, Iyengar and Lepper did several experiments to find out.

Jam!!Their first experiment took place in an upscale grocery store known for offering a particularly wide selection of products. Iyengar and Lepper set up tasting booths that offered either 6 flavours or 24 flavours of jam. Passing shoppers were allowed to taste as many jams as they liked and were given a coupon for $1 off any purchase of that brand.

The booth with more jams did attract more visitors – 60% of passing customers stopped at the 24-jam booth, versus only 40% at the 6-jam booth. However, the people who stopped at the 6-jam booth were 10 times more likely to actually buy a jar of jam.

This was interesting, but perhaps it only applied to jam. So, Iyengar and Lepper did a second experiment. Students in an introductory psychology class were given the opportunity to write a two-page essay for extra credit – but some were offered a choice of 6 essay topics and some a choice of 30 topics.

You can predict what happened: significantly more students with  6 choices decided to write the essay. But there’s more. The students who wrote essays from the list of 6 choices wrote better essays. The difference wasn’t huge, but it was there.

At this point, Iyengar and Lepper started wondering what was going on in people’s minds when they were confronted with these choices. So, they did a third experiment. Participants were shown either 6 or 30 types of Godiva chocolates and asked to pick the one they would buy for themselves. They also answered several questions about the process of choosing.

Their answers showed that people given more options enjoyed the choosing process more but also found it more difficult and more frustrating than people with fewer options. As well, people with more options were less satisfied with their choice after eating it – and less likely to buy chocolates afterward.

So, what’s going on? In their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath use the phrase “decision paralysis” to describe what happens when we face too many choices. And as they point out, “Decision paralysis can be deadly for change, because the most familiar path is always the status quo.”

As you can imagine, this information can be used in a lot of ways. It doesn’t apply when people are looking for something specific – more jams are definitely better if you’ve got your heart set on persimmon-dill chutney. But otherwise, you’ll get better results with fewer choices.

So, offer your volunteers 4 or 5 ways to help, not 20. Provide your new product in 3 sizes rather than 7. Give your kid a choice of 3 storybooks before bed, not 33. You’ll get more volunteers, more purchases and your kid in bed faster – and they’ll all feel better about their choices.

Any other ideas? Let me know in the comments.

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