“Go to xxx store because it has more choices” is the most common suggestion you give to your friends when they need to buy something. However, this suggestion is more of a punishment than a favor. Abundance of choice, in my opinion, has become the leading source of depression for people, who otherwise, are leading a happy life.
The trap of finding “best value-for-money”
Most of us belong to the lower-middle class, who work hard all month. And given the circumstances, we want the best value out of the purchases made by our hard earned money. This all leads us to adapt a “maximizing” behavior as we strive to find the best option in terms of money and value for a commodity.
In an attempt to find the best option, you prefer to analyze larger sets of options. You take pride in knowing differing rates in stores with more options and advise your people to browse those stores to find the best option.
What we fail to realize is that this behavior would eventually make us depressed, exhausted, more regretful, less satisfied and we may not even be choosing the right option after all that research. Here’s how:
The dilemma: Choice Overload
I realized this huge dilemma after I had to make a series of purchases during the past year; an action-cam, a laptop, a laptop backpack and a tablet. For instance, when it comes to buying a laptop backpack, following was my search process.
Step 1: Search google for “the best laptop backpack 2016”;
Step 2: Read all the lists given in the search results and noting down the winners;
Step 3: Trying to find the winners in the UAE;
Step 4: Since most of the bags were not available locally, I finally decided to browse through UAE based online stores, starting with Souq.com; Souq.com sells 600 different laptop backpacks. I know this because my “maximizing” behavior made me spend 15 days trying to choose one.
Step 5: Browsing through pictures of more than 100-150 backpacks, comparing their features, going through their reviews.
Step 6: Since souq.com has no reviews, I searched for the product on google and read reviews on amazon for the same product.
Step 7: Getting confused between the positive and negative reviews, and reading all of them one by one to find all the possible flaws;
Step 8: Since every bag had one or two negative reviews about its quality, I moved on to the next option and started reading its reviews.
Step 9: Dissatisfied with all the options, I decided to browse through aliexpress.com. And the whole process of reviewing of more than 1,000 options started again.
Whether I was able to find a backpack or not, is another story. Let’s just focus on the issue that I was facing: I wanted to find the best value for my money, and had more than 2,000 options at my disposal. Overwhelmed with the number of choices I had, I spent night after night, trying to find the right option, which did exhaust me.
When I realized what my search is doing to me every time I wanted to make a purchase, I found with a quick search, that this phenomenon is being termed as “Choice Overload” by many psychologists.
What Choice Overload will do to you?
First, in the lookout for the best option most of you fall for the psychological trap of “herding”. You go to online stores and look for the products with the most positive reviews. “If everyone is happy with it, it should be the best option” is how you convince yourself. However, this “herding behavior” is one of the biggest biases when it comes to rational thinking.
Some of you decide that instead of wasting time in research, it is easier to ask a trustable friend who has made a similar purchasing decision. However, given that everyone has a different preference, there is a very high probability that you will end up being unsatisfied with the option suggested to you. This behavior, where you opt to avoid making a decision when you have too many options has been statistically proven. A study conducted by Stanford put doctors in two different situations:
Situation A) They were provided with a new medicine and were given the option to try that new medicine on a patient or refer them to a specialist. Situation B) They were given 2 new medicines and were given an option to try any 1 of the 2 medicines on the patient or refer him to the specialist.
It was concluded that when only one medicine was given (Situation A), 75% of the doctors prescribed the medicine rather than referring the patient to a specialist. However, when an option to choose from 2 medicines was given (Situation B), 50% of doctors referred their patients to the specialists. Hence Avoiding making a decision themselves.
While most people resort to the “herding” behavior or ask friends for help, for some of us, it is just a small part of our extensive research process. We would read reviews, but will secretly look for hidden gems that the others have not yet found. And given the high number of choices that we have, this process has the following effect on us:
- Browsing through hundreds of products (their pictures, their features, their reviews) exhausts you to bits.
- A decision which you expected to make within an hour, takes weeks. You are paralyzed by the overwhelming number of choices and the ongoing stagnancy keeps frustrating you
- The inability to make a simple decision makes you feel stupid
How is it exhausting?
The number of choices are in large numbers. You need more time and effort to gather the information needed to make the right decision in purchasing only one. Since you have this urge to find the best option, you’re willing to even take trips to different stores to review the options, ignoring the cost of travelling.
As the costs, time, and effort needed to gather the information increases, you get exhausted and frustrated because a seemingly small purchase is now taking a toll on your mental health. The purchase was supposed to make your life more comfortable in the first place!
Due to this fatigue, you finally give up, decide to end your misery, and buy one of the short-listed options. However, you don’t realize that decisions made at this stage of research- where you are exhausted, is poor. The fatigue makes you go for the wrong option eventually. I guess this is why, when faced with an important decision, it is advised to “sleep over it” because sleeping helps you get rid of the fatigue, and therefore, improves decision making.
Anyway, this fatigue does not end with the purchase. Once you purchase the product, you stay anxious if you have missed a better option for the same price. Unfortunately, if you come across (and believe me you will!) a better product after the purchase, the regret of making the wrong purchase haunts you every time you see your purchase.
Researcher Barry Schwartz sums it up beautifully:
“As the level of certainty people have about their choice decreases, the anticipation that they will regret their choice increases”.
This all does’nt end here. After-sales service provided by many stores these days is the option to “refund” or “exchange” after the purchase. Even though this option provides confidence in the purchases you make, in contrast, it takes away the calm associated with a good purchase.
Owing to this option, you stay in doubt even after receiving your purchase. Researches have also proved that those provided with the option to exchange or refund are normally more dissatisfied with their purchases.
Academic researches proving the Choice Overload dilemma
- As per a study conducted by Washington University, if people are given less choices, they buy more. The study concluded that 30% of people bought from the store which offered fewer options of jams, while only 3% bought from the large store that offered more options. Moreover, those who bought from the store with fewer options were more satisfied with their purchase. (Iyengar and Lepper, 2000)
- A study conducted by Columbia University shows if people are given lots of choices, they opt to go for the most basic option. In that study, when people were given a big range of features to choose from when buying a car or suit, they started asking for the standard option rather than taking their time to evaluate all the options.
- A research by National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that when people are given more investment opportunities for their pension plans, they always opted to put off the decision for a later date rather than making it quickly.
- In another research, students were put into two situations: a) write an essay on 1 topic out of 30 topics provided to them, or b) write an essay on 1 topic out of 6 topics provided to them. It was concluded that students who were given less options to choose from, not only submitted more essays but also wrote better essays.
Now that we understand this problem, what is the solution?
Value for Money not Best Value for Money
Most of the studies suggest that the only way out of this dilemma is to change the way you think. Change your mind-set from “finding best value-of-money” to “finding good enough value-for-money”. This mind-set not only makes the search easier, but also keeps you from regretting not buying the best option.
A study which supports this solution, took lead from the fact that bronze medal winners (3rd in a race) are normally more satisfied/happier than the silver medal winners (2nd in a race). This is because the 2nd runner up wishes that had he run harder he would have ended at 1st place.
Limit Research to Two Stores
Find the best option on only 2 stores and make the purchase. We should start to like constraints (my mind doesn’t agree to this though). Even when you are buying online, restrict your options. But this is like deciding to deactivate Facebook; you come back.
No Going Back Option
Go for options where you do not have a choice to reverse the decision. This way, you can gradually develop a habit of being content with what you have purchased.
Expectations vs Reality
The feeling of regret is usually due to the difference between expectations and reality. We compare the reality with what we hoped it to be, what we expected it to be, and all the previous experiences that we had. However, if we learn to control our expectations, we can avoid the unnecessary regret.
To sum up, the pain of Choice Overload is very much real and on the contrary an opportunity in disguise. Just like social media platforms serve to human psychological needs, a service that helps people narrow down their options can be a viable business initiative.
Evolution may have prepared us to separate the good from bad, but interestingly not better from the best. Not yet!
- A recent series S. Iyengar and M. Lepper, “When Choice Is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2000, 79, 995–1006.
- Principal of Phycology, William James, 1982.