More is Less? How Choice Overload Affects People, Businesses and Society

Bobby Miller

Our society often acts on the assumption that more choices is always better. Businesses try to lure customers with a wide variety of products, colleges try to entice students with huge class lists and numerous amenities, and we ourselves often think we’re better off if we have plenty of activities to choose from.

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People have to make decisions based on several choices.
Credit: jscreationzs

As consumers, we can obviously see the number of available products skyrocketing. Steven Waldman of Newsweek pointed out that, in 1975, the median household in America received only six TV channels. Now we have hundreds of channels to choose from, and that’s not even including the endless array of streaming options available. Waldman also noted that the typical supermarket in 1976 only had about 9,000 products for sale, but this number shot up to 30,000 in 1992. Now, online shopping puts this to shame. For instance, just searching for “bar soap” on Amazon yields over 70,000 results.

Certainly, the wide variety of options available has its advantages, particularly for individuals with unique tastes or needs. People who enjoy watching Japanese TV shows with English subtitles can now do so through numerous streaming services, women of every race can find cosmetics that match their skin tone and individuals on special diets can find food suitable to their needs.

However, psychological research suggests that letting our number of choices rise without any restraint at all might actually make us less happy. Barry Schwartz, a professor who teaches and researches psychology and economics at Swarthmore College, pointed out that more options for Americans has not resulted in more happiness. “As the gross domestic product more than doubled in the past 30 years, the proportion of the population describing itself as ‘very happy’ declined by about 5 percent, or by some 14 million people,” he said in the Scientific American. “In addition, more of us than ever are clinically depressed.”

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Barry Schwartz is one of the most well-known researchers of choice overload.

Although he acknowledged that many other factors are contributing to our decline in happiness, Schwartz believes that we have so many choices when shopping, when picking a career and when deciding how to spend our time that we often end up overwhelmed—and wondering if our decisions truly are the best ones. This is the essence of what many psychologists call “choice overload.”

What is Choice Overload?

Choice overload is sometimes referred to as “the tyranny of choice” or “overchoice.” The term “overchoice” was first coined by writer and futurist Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book “Future Shock,” in which he argued that our culture is changing too rapidly and too drastically for people to keep up with it. Part of the problem, he believes, is being overwhelmed by choices.

Schwartz explored the concept more deeply in his 2004 book “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.” He believes that too many choices make the decision-making process more stressful, and they also make us more likely to regret our final decision. With tons of available options, it’s easy to think that one of the many other choices would have been better.

Researchers Benjamin Scheibehenne, Rainer Greifeneder and Peter M. Todd analyzed numerous studies to explore the issue of choice overload more deeply. A few studies they examined demonstrated that making a choice can be especially stressful when the attractive options are not drastically different from one another, yet still have massive amounts of information about them to sift through. All these options and all this information also make it more difficult to justify your decisions. For instance, if you think your new smartphone is the best one out there, you would need to be ready to refute all the arguments in favor of other phones if you wanted to defend your choice as the best.

Schwartz and his colleagues believe there are other difficulties people face thanks to choice overload. For example, a great number of choices could make individuals believe that it’s just not worth researching all the options out there. Ironically, too many choices could make people select a product more or less at random to avoid becoming overwhelmed with information. It’s not as if people shopping for soap on Amazon look at all 70,000 search results. So, too many choices can essentially make individuals give up their right to choose. However, maybe shoppers would be inclined to compare products more carefully if there were fewer to compare in the first place.

Plus, when we have numerous choices available to us, we’re more likely to set high expectations for ourselves, as Schwartz and his colleagues pointed out. Unrealistic expectations can make us more likely to regret our final decision. We’re also more likely to blame ourselves for our disappointment. We think that, since there were so many options out there, surely one of them would have satisfied us had we just made our decision more carefully.

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This photograph by Andreas Gursky, “99 Cent II Diptychon,” helps illustrate just how many choices shoppers today have.

The Societal Consequences of Choice Overload

Choice overload has implications far beyond the cash register, however. In our modern world with numerous activities available to us, it’s more difficult than ever before to find time to accomplish everything that we want to. As Newsweek’s Waldman pointed out, a sociologist at the University of Maryland studied various peoples’ time diaries in 1965, 1975 and 1985. This sociologist, John P. Robinson, believes that part of the reason why people feel so busy nowadays is that they spend much of their free time deciding what to do with it.

Plus, with so many different ways to have fun, it’s easy to dwell on all the activities we don’t have time for rather than savor the activities we can engage in. The more choices available to us, the more choices we have to pass over.

Schwartz believes that choice overload also has implications for universities today. Many colleges are making their core curricula smaller in favor of letting students choose their schedules more freely. “Students are required to make many choices about education that will affect them for the rest of their lives, and they are forced to make them at a point in their intellectual development when many students lack the wisdom to choose intelligently,” he wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

By thrusting more of the decision-making burden on students, colleges fail to provide the guidance necessary to help young minds find a direction in life. “The result is a generation of students who use university counseling services and antidepressants in record numbers, and who provide places like Starbucks with the most highly educated minimum-wage work force in the world, as they bide their time hoping that the answer to the ‘what should I be when I grow up’ question will eventually emerge.” Schwartz believes it’s yet another instance when tons of choices can result in someone putting off a decision indefinitely—perhaps never truly making one.

To put it simply, giving students too many choices might make it more difficult for them to find a clear path in life and stick with it. As Schwartz put it, universities need to offer their students “choice within limits, freedom within constraints.” Perhaps this has implications for parenting as well. While respecting a child’s individuality is important, they still need guidance that limits them from making poor decisions.

While working with psychologists Arne Roets and Yanjun Guan, Schwartz found another important implication of choice overload. With so many options available to them, people in the United States are more likely to blame themselves for their unhappiness than are people in countries with less freedom, such as China. So in our society, an individual is more likely to think that unhappiness is their own fault. If only they had made better decisions, perhaps they would be happier. On one hand, this attitude could lead to more personal responsibility. On the other hand, a self-blaming mindset could engulf a person in depression, especially if they are actually victims of circumstances beyond their control.

Finally, choice overload could even be damaging our ability to form new relationships. As mentioned earlier, we now have thousands of television shows to watch thanks to hundreds of available channels and numerous streaming options. On one hand, this allows people with unique tastes to find shows more relevant to their interests. On the other hand, this makes it more difficult for people to bond over shared interests. As Waldman of Newsweek explained, back when he was younger, it was relatively easy to talk about television shows with other people because they usually watched the same ones you did. However, nowadays, almost no television show is a surefire conversation topic.

In every realm of life, we have many different ways we can choose to entertain ourselves. With people making many different decisions, it’s simply more difficult to find substantial conversation topics to bond over.

Overcoming Choice Overload

Thankfully, businesses and individuals have means by which they can mitigate the effects of choice overload. For businesses, it’s not as easy as offering fewer choices, as research compiled by Scheibehenne, Greifeneder and Todd demonstrated. Typically, offering fewer choices actually decreases sales.

However, as the researchers point out, customers are far less likely to suffer from buyer’s remorse when the information provided about each product is limited. So stores should focus on distinguishing products based on their most important features rather than bombard shoppers with trivial details. When given too much information, customers are more likely to think they overlooked something and therefore made a poor decision. Categorizing products and making them easier to compare also lessens the effects of choice overload. Finally, a business should also consider offering a default option for people who are easily overwhelmed by the decision-making process.

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If all the available products only look slightly different, then consumers may end up overwhelmed while searching for the perfect match.
Credit: Jerry Lewis of Flikr

Individuals can also overcome choice overload. “Such actions require practice, discipline and perhaps a new way of thinking, but each should bring its own rewards,” Schwartz told Scientific American.

Researchers Yoel Inbar, Karlene Hanko, Simona Botti and Tom Gilovich pointed out that we are most likely to experience choice overload if we feel rushed into making a decision. Tons of choices to analyze in a short amount of time is the perfect recipe for buyer’s remorse. So if you ever need to make a difficult decision based on tons of information, make sure you give yourself plenty of time to do so.

You can also avoid information overload by finding a trustworthy expert to make a difficult choice for you. After all, research by Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper shows that people unfamiliar with the array of choices before them are the most likely to end up overwhelmed while making a decision—and the most likely to regret their selection. So perhaps some choices are better left to people who can compare the finer details of the options at hand.

Schwartz has a few suggestions of his own. Since we have to make countless choices every day, we should decide which ones are truly worth our time and effort. For example, with minor shopping decisions, limit how much time you’ll spend browsing online for the right item or limit how many stores you’ll visit in your search.

Also make sure that you don’t set your expectations too high. More options do not guarantee that the products are better, so don’t think your final decision has to be magnificent.

Schwartz believes one of the most important things we can do to avoid choice overload is to settle for “good enough.” Rather than try to justify your decision as the best one or wonder what your other options would have been like, learn to be happy with choices that have met your needs.

Schwartz and other researchers consistently found that the people most likely to regret their decisions are “maximizers,” individuals who want to be sure that their choices are the absolute best ones possible. In fact, while working with Columbia University psychologists Rachael F. Elwork and Sheena S. Iyengar, Schwartz found that “maximizers” are more likely than the general population to dislike their jobs and more likely to become depressed. So rather than seek perfection, just seek satisfaction.

Likewise, as Newsweek’s Waldman pointed out, accept that you’re going to make wrong choices—many of them. To expect otherwise is unrealistic.

Overall, if there’s one thing the concept of choice overload teaches us, it’s that we shouldn’t expect more and more and more to make us happier. Instead, we need to learn to find satisfaction in moderation. Such a mindset requires discipline, especially in a society where hundreds of apps, gadgets and other commodities are released every week, just vying for our attention. But by distinguishing between important decisions and not-so-important ones, we can prevent ourselves from becoming overwhelmed by the ocean of options available to us.

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