Every day of our lives we are bombarded with choices. We decide what to eat, what to wear, and what to spend money on. These inconsequential decisions take up a lot of space and energy in our minds. What if that mental space was freed up to work on more important problems? For access to tools to deal with indecisiveness and to learn about the paradox of choice, download the LIFE Intelligence app, one app to monitor and improve your self, career, and relationships.
You may have a restaurant in your town known for only serving one type of food, maybe a particular kind of pizza with limited toppings or a small variety of specially-made burgers. On the other hand, you might know the feeling of being exhausted from combing through multiple pages of a diner menu, unsure of what to order. The dichotomy between these two types of restaurants shows how we feel more relaxed when we have less choices. If this example didn’t persuade you, then the following scientific research should be more convincing.
Iyengar & Lepper (2000) conducted multiple studies to investigate the effect of having many or few choices. In the first study, they invited passersby to try jam at a fake storefront. Shoppers either walked up to a display with six choices of jams or twenty-four choices, and were allowed to try any of the jams they wanted. After tasting, they were given a $1 coupon for a discount off any of the jams at the store. These researchers found that people were more likely to approach the display if there were more choices available, but participants who visited the limited store front ended up purchasing significantly more jam. So, it seems like people thought that they wanted more choices, but more options actually decreased their motivation to buy the product.
In another study, Iyengar & Lepper (2000) had participants choose from either a limited or extensive array of chocolates. Then, some participants were allowed to sample the chocolate they chose, while others sampled a chocolate chosen for them. Participants claimed they enjoyed the process of choosing a chocolate more when they had more options. However, in the group with more choices, the participants were more dissatisfied and regretful of the choices they made and were less likely to choose chocolates instead of money as compensation for their participation.
While we might think that we’d like more choices, we’ll probably be less satisfied with our decision and will have less motivation to follow through with that choice. This phenomenon is known as “choice overload.”
Choice overload can have many negative effects. Vohs et al. (2008) found that a greater number of options were associated with less self control, lower physical stamina and pain tolerance, less persistence when failing, and even decreased the ability to perform numerical calculations. From these results, Vohs et al. (2008) hypothesized that having many alternatives to choose from requires effort, and this effort depletes our cognitive resources which lead to those negative effects. Choosing requires effort because of “search costs,” which are the time, effort, risk, and regret we experience when we pursue a goal (Wieczorkowska & Burnstein, 1999). More choices means more search costs, leading to those negative consequences.
Also, when we have to make complex decisions, we might choose not to make a decision at all. Dhar (1997) found that when individuals were given choices that were similar in attractiveness, many decided to defer the decision and choose to not choose. When “search costs” are too high and it's hard to decipher differences between choices, we might feel like it’s not worth making a decision.
Choice overload pervades many aspects of our lives, but there are ways that we can limit choices for ourselves and others. Malone & Lusk (2018) investigated choice overload in the U.S. beer industry and found that sellers can reduce the negative consequences of decision-making for their consumers. Having less options of beers, highlighting specials on the menu, and including reviews caused more customers to choose a beer rather than defer the decision.
While it would probably be in our best interest to limit all of our daily choices, it’s not possible in some cases. For example, dating apps and our practically unlimited access to potential partners on the internet has led to a “rejection mindset,” and has made people more pessimistic and faster to reject others (Pronk & Denissen, 2019). Many people enjoy online dating and find success from it, so it's not practical to advise people to stop using these apps. Also, because of how the apps are designed, it might not be possible for the user to limit partner choices. However, if we are mindful that having more choices makes us more prone to reject others, then maybe we’ll think twice before swiping left so quickly.
We make many decisions every single day, so it’s important to have a tool to remind us to limit our choices and to help decrease the negative effects of choice overload. The LIFE Intelligence self-care app’s 9 step Mission program guides you through mental health, self-awareness, goal setting, regret and time management, decision making, stress management, relationships, conflict resolution, and leadership. Mission 5 is called “Make Difficult Decisions,” and its goal is to help us make more accurate, efficient, and satisfying decisions. Mission 5.5 covers the paradox of choice, and provides concrete steps to making a choice that we’ll be happy with. In addition, the LIFE app has a feature to log your moods during the day, and then manage them with helpful information and strategies. The information and activities attached to the mood “indecisive” will be helpful to anyone experiencing the negative effects of choice overload. Check out Mission 5, the mood wheel, and more when you start LIFE free today.
Dhar, R. (1997). Consumer preference for a no-choice option. Journal of
Consumer Research, 24: 215-231. https://academic.oup.com/jcr/article/24/2/215/1794929
Iyengar, S.S. & Lepper, M.R. (2000). When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much
of a Good Thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2000-16701-012
Malone, T. & Lusk, J.L. (2019). Mitigating Choice Overload: An Experiment in the U.S. Beer
Market. Journal of Wine Economics, 14(1): 48-70. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-wine-economics/article/mitigating-choice-overload-an-experiment-in-the-us-beer-market/D54DB361E28A8A6BE217CC276AC4A490
Pronk, T.M & Denissen, J.J.A. (2019). A Rejection Mind-Set: Choice Overload in Online Dating.
Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(3): 388-396. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1948550619866189
Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., Schmeichel, B. J., Twenge, J. M., Nelson, N. M., & Tice, D. M.
(2008). Making choices impairs subsequent self- control: A limited-resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94: 883–898. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18444745/
Wieczorkowska, G., & Burnstein, E. (1999). Adapting to the transition from socialism to
capitalism in Poland: The role of screening strategies in social change. Psychological Science, 10: 98–105. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1111/1467-9280.00115