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At Science of People, I love to write about how we make decisions. Our bite-size science today is about choice paralysis.

There is a very famous set of experiments regarding jam and choice. In the 1980’s consumer reports put together a panel of taste experts to judge (out of 45 choices) which strawberry jam tasted the best. They were scored by the ‘trained sensory panelists’ on a variety of characteristics including spreadability and fruitiness. The finished report was published in Consumer Reports.

A few years later a psychologist at the University of Virginia named Timothy Wilson decided to replicate the experiment to see if students would pick the same jams as the experts. He randomly picked 5 of the jams from the list and had students rank them. Surprisingly, the students had a .55 (very high) correlation with the expert’s choices. Great, we are as good as the experts in taste testing! However Wilson then asked a second group of students to pick their favorites and explain why they liked them. This time there was only a .11 correlation to the expert’s choices!

The more choices we have, the LESS choices we actually end up making!

What does this experiment tell us? When we think too much about our choices, we make the wrong choice. Barry Schwartz also argues that less choice is better. Why?

  1. When we have more choices, we make worse decisions.
  2. Having too much choice causes paralysis so we cannot make any decision at all.
  3. More importantly, we also spend time thinking about the choices we didn’t pick, instead of being happy with the one we did choose. The more choices, the more we feel we ‘missed out on.’

I learned how applicable this was to my own life the hard way:

I used to offer over 20 choices for ‘special projects’ to our interns. Special projects are areas that interest our teens that we need help with. An example is the “Editor Special Project” where interns connect with and email editors of popular parenting magazines. Another example is our “Radio Special Project,” where an especially well-spoken teen serves as our teen spokesperson on radio interviews. When I gave 20 choices, not only did it take teens forever to decide (usually with many emails back and forth on the pros and cons of each one), but we had a bigger drop rate. This is when teens would do their special project for a few weeks and then email us that they ‘think they made a mistake, because they have been thinking about the Newspaper Special Project and the PR Special Project, and maybe those are better.’

Finally, I decided to limit it to three choices and I would rotate the choices as the special projects filled. Now, decisions are made very quickly and we almost have no drop outs. Why? With three choices, there is less to miss out on. With only three choices, there is no paralysis from teens. With three choices, teens have less to consider.

Think of how many choices we offer our clients and family members. Which of the following ten vacation cities should we pick? Do they want spaghetti, eggs, burgers, fish sticks or mac and cheese for dinner? It feels like choice is luxury and it is good for us. However, offering ourselves and each other less choice actually enables us to make a better decisions, will make our lives easier and helps us feel like we are missing out on less.

We like choice because it feels luxurious and it makes us feel that we could change our minds later, just in case we made the wrong decision. However, Schwartz cites an example in his book looking at mutual funds offered by an employer. It is definitely in an employee’s best interest to join one of the programs. By not participating they are turning down up to $5,000 per year in employer matching. The study found that for every additional 10 mutual funds an employer offered, the rate of participation went DOWN 2%!  Why would people turn down this offer when they get more choices? Having too much choice causes paralysis.

I have a choice of 175 salad dressings at my local super market. How many have I tried? 4–and 2 of those I only tried because they were in my parent’s fridge. The one time I tried to buy another type of dressing I got overwhelmed, spent 20 minutes looking at bottles, finally bought one that looked good, took it home and realized it tasted awful. I also poured it all over my salad and thought to myself before I even took a bite: “Maybe I should have gotten the ginger miso one?”

I have found such freedom in limiting my own choices. I also offer less choices to those around me and have had only positive responses. I took down half of the products on my website–sales all across the board went up and offer less choice to my friends when picking movies–resulting in a headache free Saturday night.

Bottom Line: Offer less choice, limit your own choices and you will have better decisions all around.


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