The Challenge with Choices

In a world of near-infinite volumes of digital bits and bytes, there’s something to be said for the physical.

With a smartphone, I can access virtually any piece of data ever discovered, or any song ever recorded, or any photo ever taken.

Still, at times, I want a hardback book or a vinyl record.

My family bought a retro record player not long ago. Since then, an extended family member has given us a stream of vinyls: The Beatles, Elvis, U2, Norah Jones, to name a few.

We now have about fifteen to choose from. It makes choosing music simpler, and the music is actually richer than listening on a digital device. Little known fact: Digital music squashes sound quality to make songs stream faster.

For the same reason I go with vinyl at home, I’ve been popping in old CDs in my old Land Cruiser rather than fiddling with a digital playlist on my phone. Limiting my options increases my focus and creates a more enjoyable experience.

I may have unlimited options in this information age, but I don’t have unlimited time, energy and knowledge to filter those options.

Hence, there is a diminishing return to expanding choices. Having too many choices can be debilitating.

In the mid-1990s, Columbia University professor Sheena Iyengar conducted a study in a gourmet grocery.

She set out twenty-four choices of jams. Sixty per cent of people stopped for a sample.

Then, she set out just six choices of jams. Only forty per cent of shoppers stopped.

However, thirty per cent of people who stopped for the smaller assortment ended up purchasing, compared to only three per cent of those who stopped for the larger display.

Fewer options drove greater sales.

In “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,” psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that an increased volume of consumer choices causes anxiety in shoppers. Too many options causes paralysis, not liberation.

Schwartz cites a study that revealed a two per cent decrease in participation in an employer-matched retirement plan for every ten mutual funds added to the plan.

An expanding selection scared participants off, or at least prompted procrastination that resulted in inactivity.

Schwartz says that even if a person makes a choice from a large slate of options, he or she is less satisfied with it because of the regret that comes from contemplating the options not chosen.

This explains why a meal of Cane’s chicken tenders can be more enjoyable than dinner at The Cheesecake Factory. The latter’s menu is a tome. I’ve seen shorter textbooks.

At a family camp out last fall, a mom organized a taste test. She distributed about fifteen different flavors of Oreo cookies that Nabisco now makes. They included lemon, cinnamon roll and red velvet cake. Suffice it to say, some of them were a far cry from the original.

Unable to leave well enough alone and driven by Wall Street growth expectations, Nabisco is simply trying to expand its Oreo “franchise.”

In the meantime, milk’s favorite cookie falls victim to the fallacy that having more choices always delivers more happiness.

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