The downside of choice

Earlier today I was at an information session, meeting people interested in post-graduate education at the institution where I am employed, Oxford Brookes University. I was doing my best to show the potential candidates all the options that they had access to. We talked about the different modes of study (i.e., full time vs. part time). We talked about the various programmes on offer at the Business School, as often candidates are unsure between a focused programme like the one I was representing – the MSc Marketing – and a generalist one like the MSc Business Management or even the MBA. And we talked about the many electives available and the various pathways within specific programmes.

At one point, the lovely lady I was talking to, let out a sigh and said:

Oh, this is all so difficult. It was much easier when I did my first degree. I was told what I had to study, and when, and that was it.’

It seems that in my quest to help her make the best decision possible, I made her life more difficult. It reminded me of the work by Barry Schwartz, specifically his research into choice and decision-making. Schwartz investigated the effect of choice in the process and the outcome of decision-making and concluded that increasing choice has two detrimental effects: 1) people find it difficult to take a decision and 2) it results in less satisfaction.


1. Increasing choice leads to paralysis

Schwartz concluded that when we have many options to choose from, we find it difficult to commit to any choice at all. We postpone and postpone and postpone, sometimes at significant cost, to ourselves or others.

One obvious example would be when we try to decide between various flight options (carriers, days, times, airports…) so we delay the decision in order to collect a bit more information, or think a bit longer, and, in the meantime, the fares keep increasing.

2. Increasing choice leads to less satisfaction

When we eventually commit to one of the options available, we end up being dissatisfied with our decision. This dissatisfaction occurs because we keep wondering whether we could have made a better choice. Another reason for the dissatisfaction is that, with many options available, we expect to be able to find one that is perfect for us. When we don’t find that perfect solution, we feel disappointed.

Schwartz presents a brief – and amusing – overview of these arguments and the underlying rationale in the video below:

The problem is that, in our society, choice is deemed to be good. Not only do we like to feel that we have options, but also we like to be treated as unique individuals.

So, the question for marketers is: Do you give people what they want (i.e., more choice)? Or do you give people what makes their decisions easier and the outcome more satisfying (i.e., less choice)?

PS – Ah, well. I hope that I did not make this lady’s decision too difficult… and that she chooses the MSc Marketing, of course 🙂

5 thoughts on “The downside of choice

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