It might seem counterintuitive to suggest that having too much choice could limit our freedom.
Analysis paralysis or choice overload occurs in our brains when we are faced with too many options to choose from. It’s the overwhelming feeling we get when we’re in line at the local coffee shop, and suddenly we need to make a choice from the vast selection of beverage options looming on the sign above us – which bean and roast? full or half fat? dairy, soy or oat milk? extra foam? how many pumps and of which flavor? Unless you’ve already got your favorite in mind, you might just skip your morning coffee altogether to avoid the agonizing decision-making process.
Researchers out of California have now identified the specific areas of the brain involved in choosing between options, or not choosing at all. From this, the scientists have also been able to narrow down the point at which the potential reward of choosing (i.e. enjoying that perfect cup of coffee) is overshadowed by the amount of work it’s going to take to get there (standing in a lineup of impatient coffee-drinkers as you try to make sense of the endless options).
There doesn’t appear to be a magic number of choices at which this occurs, and there are always different factors at play, but one of the researchers, Colin Camerer of the California Institute of Technology, estimates it to be somewhere between 8 and 15.
In 2000, a group of scientists led by Professor Iyengar, also out of California, conducted a now-famous jam study in which customers passed by a table with a selection of 24 jams, or one with just 6 jams on it. While significantly more customers stopped by the table with the larger assortment (60% vs. 40%), only 3 percent of these made a purchase versus 30 percent of those who stopped at the table with fewer choices. When customers were faced with too much choice, they simply couldn’t make up their minds when it came to actually buying.
Aside from the confusion we feel when faced with too many options, we are also more likely to feel disappointed in the choice we do make, imagining all the other alternatives we might have gone with. Also, with so much choice, our expectations of the product or service increases dramatically, resulting in a greater risk of disappointment.
To top it all off, we often end up blaming ourselves for making the wrong choice. Not much freedom in that.
All of these negatives add up to lower overall customer satisfaction in spite of the dizzying array of custom options available to us today as consumers.