The Art of Choosing

“We’re aware of the positive effects of choice but not the negative ones, so we attribute any harm caused by too much choice to some other cause, perhaps even to too little choice.”

The Art of Choosing, page 205

Stop me if you’ve heard this one:  A behavioural psychologist sets up a taste testing booth in a specialty supermarket.  On alternating days, she puts out 30 flavours of jam for consumers to try.  The other days she puts out only six flavours.  In both cases, people who stop try, on average, two flavours before receiving a coupon for $1 off, and continuing with their shopping.  (More on this study in a second)

Did you just register that?  Thirty flavours of jam. The fact that this didn’t faze you should tell you something – we are inundated by choice.

The freedom to choose is a powerful one.  Our Western culture is built on it, and the globalization of the last 20 years has only pushed it to the next level.  Do a quick Google search for “jam”, “shoes” or “sunglasses” (or virtually any other product, for that matter), and you’ll instantly be supplied with literally hundreds of thousands of options. But why?  Because we demanded it.  Because, the rationale goes, “if choice is good, then more choice is better”.  Because we want an opportunity to express our individuality – our unique tastes – at every turn.

As Sheena Iyengar explores in The Art of Choosing, however, there may be a limit to the value of exponentially increasing options.  And, most interestingly, there may actually be harm in going too far.  Which brings us back to the Jam study…

Golden Egg

The Tipping Point of Choice

“Even though the latter attracted more attention, more than six times as many people made a purchase when we displayed the smaller set of jams.”

The Art of Choosing, page 187

So, this behavioural psychologist sets up a study where we (consumers) are presented with 6 options and given an incentive($1 off coupon) to make a decision (purchase a jar of jam).  Then, another batch of consumers is presented with 30 options and given the same incentive to make a decision.  More options, more chance of making a decision, right?  More chance of finding the exact jam that matches our unique needs and therefore making us happier, right?  Wrong.

As it turns out, those consumers that were presented with fewer options were six times more likely to make a decision as to which jam they’d be happy purchasing. So what’s going on here?

In The Art of Choosing, Iyengar explores dozens of research projects (many of which, including the infamous  “Jam Study”, she was instrumental in orchestrating) that examine the choosing process that we are all subjected to in our daily lives.  And the fascinating result is this: while we all enjoy the process of selection – of being able to express our uniqueness and to exercise our independent thought – there are other factors at play that can turn the choosing process into a stressful experience, factors that can actually diminish happiness, rather than increase it. Too many options, it turns out, can do more harm than good.

Coincidently, I had a chance to experience this first hand this weekend, at a friend’s cottage.  The catch phrase of the weekend was FOMO – “fear of missing out”.  For a couple of people, every activity decision was a stressful one – not because of what the choice provided, but because of what it might not provide.  Going snowshoeing meant missing out on cross country skiing.  Staying in to socialize and play games meant potentially missing out on some great outdoor adventure.  While it turned into a running joke for the getaway weekend, “FOMO” acted as a great example of the stress that too much choice can inject into our daily decision making.

GEM #1

Magic Number 7 (Plus or Minus 2)

“This study shows that people can learn to choose from more options, but they’re less likely to drown if they start off in the shallows and then slowly move toward the deep, all the while building their skills and their nerve.”

The Art of Choosing, page 212

Pop quiz – you’re on a German car company’s website, custom building your ideal vehicle.  You’re presented with 56 color options for the car’s exterior.  How easily can you make a decision?  Now, what if, instead of choosing between 56 colors, you were asked to choose between 56 engine sizes and configurations?

Unless you’re a mechanic, chances are it’s a lot easier for you to choose between colors than between horsepower and torque.  56 engine options (a selection process which, thankfully, does not exist on Audi’s “Audi Configurator” site) is in fact so overwhelming for a non-car expert that we might give up completely and skip the customization process, going with something “off the shelf” instead.

Compared to car engines, color is something most of us are comfortable deciding.  So of course the color decision is an easier one.  There’s something else going on here, though.  Let’s imagine that instead of 56 engine options, there were 4.  How are you feeling about making that decision?  Suddenly, it’s a whole new story.  We can research the differences between four engine types.  We can weigh the pros and cons, imagine each in action in our day to day lives, and make a decision that fits our unique needs.  We’d probably enjoy the process too – feeling good about the final decision we made.  In fact, research shows that we would likely enjoy and be more confident in our decision on one of four engine types than we would in the decision of one of fifty-six paint colors, even with limited knowledge or experience in the world of auto mechanics.  Better still, if we could make the 1 in 4 decision first, we may find it easier to make the 1 in 56 decision afterwards.

It turns out that there’s an optimal limit to the level of choice we are provided with.  That limit is seven, plus or minus two.  In study after study, it’s been proven that we are best at making decisions (and being happy with the outcome) when we have between 5 and 9 options to choose from. (Check out pages 177 – 185 of The Art of Choosing for more insight into this fascinating conclusion).

So, the learning here is this – if you want people to engage with you and make a decision, work to present them with less options, not more.  Be it your boss, your client, your spouse, or your staff, recognize that people fundamentally crave freedom of choice… and then make it easy on them by limiting the options.

GEM #2

Imagination trumps option

“Insisting on more when one already has a great deal is usually considered a sign of greed.  In the case of choice, it is also a sign of the failure of imagination, which we must avoid or overcome if we wish to solve our multiple choice problem.”

The Art of Choosing, page 215

W can use the learnings from the Jam Study, as well as the points in GEM #1 to make better decisions in our own lives, as well.  Just like our clients, staff, boss or spouse, we make more definite decisions and are happier with our choices when we limit our starting point.  Seeking out other options, or trying to keep as many doors open as possible may seem prudent, but can often be a sign of procrastination or fear of commitment.  In our highly competitive world, success goes to those who do their research, choose a path and then commit to it – fully and completely.  Though it may sound counterintuitive, (or just plain scary, for some) there is far more to be gained from choosing a path and then thinking through interesting and creative ways to thrive with that choice than there is with holding back from making a decision in the first place.  Yes, of course due diligence and a healthy level of research is important, but do a gut check on when enough is enough and it’s time to commit.  Pull the trigger.  Then find imaginative ways to turn that decision into excellence.

It’s rare that I find a new author who truly engages.  Sadly, most “new business books” are fairly mundane – old concepts with slightly shinier finishes.  First time author, Sheena Iyengar, is the exception.  The Art of Choosing is a beautifully written book, reminiscent in style to Malcolm Gladwell or the Freakonomics team of Dubner and Levitt.  Iyengar has a wonderfully inquisitive mind – asking probing questions, and then answering them with solid research projects.  She also has a fabulous outlook on life.  While, as she reminds us, our lives are no doubt some formulaic mix of choice, chance and destiny, the power of choice is not one to be taken lightly, particularly in our age of infinite selection.  Near the end of her book, she states:

“I believe that choice – though it can be finicky, unwieldy, and demanding – is ultimately the most powerful determinant of where we go and how we get there.”  (page 261)

I happen to agree.

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Chris Taylor

ABOUT Chris Taylor

Founder of Actionable Books, Chris Taylor is a writer, entrepreneur and speaker. He spends his daylight hours helping consultants and employees alike find meaning in their work and discover rich team relationships through his company, Actionablebooks...
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