The Paradox of Choice: Real or Not?

The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less is a book by psychologist, Barry Schwartz.  In a nutshell, the book discusses why and how multiple options create stress, confusion, and a lack of decision-making ability on the part of consumers.  The first part of this post deals with real-world scenarios.  For the section on how the Paradox of Choice relates to online buying decisions and the effect it has on digital commerce, skip ahead to the section titled The Paradox of Choice and Online Commerce.

In a supposedly world-renowned, researcher-curated economic study where many different types of jams were offered to customers for sampling prior to making a purchase, people faced with so many decisions ultimately ended up not making a decision at all.  They felt stressed out and confused over the large variety of options, weren’t sure which single flavor to pick, and didn’t pick anything at all.  (Also known and referred to as The Jelly Experiment.)

There are supporters and detractors to the applicability of the Paradox of Choice when applied to consumer purchasing decisions.

In an online article titled More is More: Why the Paradox of Choice Might Be a Myth, The Atlantic Magazine presents a debunking of Schwartz’ theory.  They claim that in “several studies” attempting to replicate the results of The Jelly Experiment, the end result was that offering lots of extra choices made no difference either way.  The Atlantic’s article also claims that offering a single-option actually produces the results that Schwartz is claiming via the Paradox of Choice.

To demonstrate how one option creates a “no sales at all” result, The Atlantic cited Williams-Sonoma and how they nearly doubled sales of their $279 bread maker.  At one time, the $279 bread maker was the only one being sold by Williams-Sonoma, and they were not really generating noteworthy sales on the item.  They introduced a $429 bread maker and sales of the lower-priced version almost doubled (and practically no one purchased the $429 one).

Daniel Mochon penned a single-option aversion paper for the Journal of Consumer Behavior.  Mochon claims that when consumers are faced with a “take it or leave it” option consisting of one particular brand or item, they become more interested in shopping around for comparisons to make sure they are getting the best product, best deal, and best option.  Conversely, when they are presented with 20 different flavors or brands of potato chips, for example, the numerous options actually heighten distinctions and give us a greater and more confident sense of surety when making a final purchasing decision.

Mochon’s explanation for this is that by offering a much wider range of options, we are actually giving the consumer the impression that they have explored every possible option (on the shelf in front of them), and are making the best possible decision based on their ability to make comparisons on-the-fly.

While all of this explains the Paradox of Choice and how real or effective it is in real-world examples where consumers can see, touch, taste, and smell the options being presented to them, how does it affect online purchasing decisions?

The Paradox of Choice and Online Commerce

Real-world applications for determining how many options are simply too many can be made easily via a kiosk, sample counter, or simple survey.  Determining whether or not the Paradox of Choice is real in online commerce, however, is another thing entirely.  Companies may not have the time, staff, and budget to spend untold hours performing market research before coming to a conclusion on the best way to market, display, and sell their wares on the internet.  This means that, in most cases, a refinement of shopping options or marketing strategies is done on an as-needed or on-the-fly basis, when one particular method isn’t working and gets modified or replaced by an alternate method.

According to a Smart Insights article on the Paradox of Choice:

Less really is more when it comes to your customer’s satisfaction.

The study of how and why people make decisions, especially as those decisions relate to consumer purchasing, is not a new field of inquiry.  There is research dating back to the 1950s that examines whether or not the number of purchasing options impacts a consumer’s decision, and how more or less likely a consumer is to make a decision at all when faced with a greater number of selections or fewer.

A research paper published by Iyengar & Lepper in 2000 discusses When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing? [PDF document] as part of a section on personality processes and individual differences.  This study begins:

On the face of it, this supposition [“the more choices, the better”] seems well supported by decades of psychological theory and research that has repeatedly demonstrated, across many domains, a link between the provision of choice and increases in intrinsic motivation, perceived control, task performance, and life satisfaction.

The Iyengar & Lepper study conducted field and laboratory research trials to evaluate choices made by potential consumers when faced with a varied number of options, as well as when faced with a different number of options that consisted of very similar and very dissimilar characteristics.  An example of the latter would be when you are faced with 20 different brands of plain potato chips of varied types (wavy, plain, kettle, salted, etc.), or 20 different flavors of chips offered by the same brand (sour cream and onion, BBQ, cheddar, wasabi, jalapeno, salt and pepper, etc.).

The conclusion reached by the Iyengar & Lepper study is that while people may initially prefer to be faced with a greater number of options (which appears to give them more power over their final decision), they often fail to choose decisively and confidently, or fail to choose at all.  A smaller number of choices produces the greatest level of post-selection satisfaction and almost always culminates in a decision being made by the consumer.

A perfect (and perfectly frightening) example of too many options can be found at the website for Ling’s Cars.  A word of warning – before you open the page, turn down your computer speakers.  There is quite literally so much information on the home page that you simply don’t know where to look or click first and, if you are like so many other people, you choose instead to just click away from the website altogether.

Some marketing experts recommend that you design an online landing page with some information and options for your visitor, but not too many.  The blog over at Kissmetrics provides The Anatomy of a Perfect Landing Page.  There are many other experts, however, that would disagree with Kissmetrics’ opinion.

Those dissenting experts mentioned above hold the opinion that a landing page should display nothing more than what serves the page’s purpose.  The purpose of the page is to get your visitor to buy something.  There should be no navigation links, options, menus, calls to action, write-ups, or anything superfluous on the page that does not say (literally and figuratively) “buy me now.”

This ‘less is more’ theory is certainly in line with some aspects of the Paradox of Choice, but oversimplifying a landing page by giving your visitor only one option that consists of spending money may be just as much of a deterrent as the carnival of the grotesque at Ling’s Cars.

If you do simplify your options to the point of having no options at all other than the one most beneficial to your business, you need to make sure it is as much of a no-brainer non-choice as possible.  Make it impossible for your visitor to walk away from what you are offering.

Conclusion

Finding out what makes consumers tick – and what makes them click – is an endeavor that will continue to occupy the minds of market researchers, digital marketers, business owners, and other professionals for some time to come.  There are plenty of great resources for guiding you in the process of getting clicks and conversions, so make sure you do your own research, too.  Pay attention to your analytics, perform testing on content and CTAs, and keep fine-tuning your marketing strategies until you have ones that work best for your business.

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