The Paradox of Choice

Is there such a thing as choice overload?

I am sure that there is no shortage of relatable memes on the internet these days. But have you seen this one?

I honestly feel like this one was tailor-made for me. Similar to everyone else, I have intense feelings of love for Netflix. But sometimes I miss just putting on a channel and watching whatever is on. The weight of picking a movie/tv show amongst the countless options on Netflix gets tiring, especially after an already exhausting day.

It turns out I am not the only one. Getting tired of too many choices is a whole concept in itself. Choice overload describes how people get overwhelmed when they are presented with many options to choose from. This concept has multiple names like overchoice, choice paralysis, or the paradox of choice.

I know what you are thinking; the general assumption is that more choice is a good thing. However, multiple kinds of research have shown that we have a more challenging time choosing from a more extensive array of options. Maybe this is why many prefer restaurants with a more selected menu or a cafe that sells simpler coffees like black or espresso.

The amount of time I spend while selecting a drink at Starbucks or selecting what to watch on Netflix or any other OTT platform is unparalleled. But these are some examples of not-so-important decisions. Choice overload can cause us to delay making decisions, even the more important ones. For instance, we might get flustered by so many available career options and find it challenging to make the final decision.  

The process of decision-making is not the same for everyone. Based on their decision-making approach, we can broadly categorise people into two types. The first ones are called Maximizers; these are people who are compelled to find the very best option available. They compare all their choices and evaluate alternatives on a whole host of attributes before they feel ready to make a decision. The other kind of people are Satisfiers; they are just looking for something that meets their basic requirements. They are content with ‘good’ and don’t feel the need to seek out the ‘best.’

Both Maximizers and Satisfiers undergo some sort of fatigue due to multiple choices. There are a lot of reasons why this fatigue happens. Some of the most prominent reasons are -

(a)  Cognitive Cost - It’s a well-known psychological fact that our capacity to process anything is just 7 (plus-minus 2) at any point in time. With time our choices have grown exponentially, but our ability to process information remains the same. For example, If I buy shoes and am presented with 7 to 9 options, I will process them and decide. However, if I am presented with more than nine options, I will have trouble processing all the choices. This is when we start relying on heuristics and cognitive biases to make decisions.

(b)  Overwhelming feeling - Imagine you are in a grocery store to buy something as simple as tomato ketchup. When you reach the respective aisle, you see five big rows filled with different brands or types of tomato ketchup. How would you feel? This is how your customer also feels when bombarded with a lot of choices.

(c) The weight of responsibility - In the earlier days with less or no competition, we could easily blame a particular brand if we were not satisfied with the purchase. However, now we are the ones responsible for picking the better product. Therefore, the more choices we have, the more expectation will be with our final selection.

Now that we know how problematic choice overload can be, let’s look at the other side of the coin. The bad news is that your customers have a problem. The good news, my friend, is that you can be their knight in shining armour.

Here are a few things you can do to make things easier for your customers -

(a)Take off the cognitive load - If you are a brand with many products or a shop with multiple categories of products, provide a filter for your customers. If you have ever used Amazon or any other good website, you know what I am talking about.

You can also use technological advancement to your advantage. Don’t be scared to become personal shoppers for your customers. Based on their purchasing history, offer them product recommendations and spot-on deal offers.

(b) Don’t let your customers delay their decision - Because of various choices, making a final decision might become a dreaded process. Therefore, you need to persuade your customers at this point. Use the urgency principle (give them a time limit) or the scarcity principle (limit the quantity of the product) for this purpose.

(c) Help cut down on the post-purchase regret - Provide reassurance to your customers. For example, a post-purchase email saying - “I hope you enjoy the product. In case of any problems, please reach out to us.” can make them feel like they made the right decision.

The bottom line is that your customer is a damsel in distress, and you have to find a solution for them to stand out amongst all the other knights.

I will be rooting for you!

Some quick takeaways -

● Choice overload describes how people get overwhelmed when they are presented with many options to choose from.

● Based on their decision-making approach, we can broadly categorise people into two types, Maximizers and Satisfiers.

● Significant reasons for choice overload are - Cognitive cost, overwhelming feeling and the weight of responsibility.

● A better understanding of problems caused by choice overload can help you stand out in the competition and, more importantly, can help you help your customers better.