Paradox of Choice: How Too Many Choices Might Overwhelm Your Audience

Paradox of Choice: How Too Many Choices Might Overwhelm Your Audience
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What is the Paradox of Choice? A concept coined by American psychologist Barry Schwartz, the Paradox of Choice is a phenomenon where consumers who are confronted with too many choices might find it harder to make decisions or to be happy with the decisions they do make. As a result, sometimes offering fewer choices is better than offering more.

It could be said that we live in an era where, as consumers, we suffer from a gluttony of choices.

Take, for example, this scenario:

At the grocery store, you want peanut butter. You come upon the breakfast aisle, and you find four rows of peanut butter, more than 16 brands to choose from, and you’re unable to make a choice because of the vast array of options.

An increasingly rambunctious dialogue spins in your head:

“Oh goodness, which one do I pick?”

“This one is creamy and organic.”

“This one is made crunchy, but not as whole-peanut-chunky as this one.”

“That one costs less than this one, but it’s got fewer peanuts.”

As humorist Bill Watterson once quipped: “I’ll quit my job and devote my life to choosing peanut butter!”

Overwhelmed, some consumers walk away, deciding not to decide. Some consumers pick a default choice, likely a brand they have already bought. Some reach for the unknown, only to be dissatisfied by not really feeling they made a choice.

Welcome to the crippling cognitive bias called choice overload, decision paralysis, or the Paradox of Choice.

Coining the term: paradox of choice.

Coining the term: Paradox of Choice

Psychologist Barry Schwartz in his 2004 book ‘The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less’ examined this dichotomy: On the one hand, folks in the West believe choice is integral to our democracy; the more choice, the better. On the other hand, Schwartz’s research found too much choice may not always be a good thing. Rather, it might cause people to pick options less beneficial for themselves.

As marketing content creators, you are in the business of helping customers make better choices. Understanding the Paradox of Choice, a cognitive bias that creates friction in a consumer’s sense of purchasing power, can inform your own campaigns. This blog series aims to dive into the findings of different cognitive biases, so you as marketing and content creators can create nuanced marketing materials based on evidence-based consumer psychology.

What are the main aspects of choice overload?

  • Generally, when given more options, people have a harder time deciding.
  • Because they have a hard time deciding, they are more prone to being dissatisfied with their choice or more likely to regret the purchase.
  • Having more choices raises interest, yet it also raises expectations. Those expectations seem to dim when a choice is made out of a larger variety than a smaller number of choices.
  • There are some consumers who are satisfiers (they pick something that’s good enough) while others are maximizers (they must pick the best of the lot or the best of the best).
  • On some high-stakes decisions, like health plans, the more options there are, researchers found fewer people participated in the programs.
  • The bottomless task of making decisions on big and small things takes up time and mental energy, bombarding our senses, potentially making us feel anxious or depressed.

At face value, you might rush to Marie Kondo your product inventory and offer less choice to help your customers avoid choice overload, but before doing that, let’s look at another study done on choice published by Columbia University’s Sheena Iyengar and Stanford’s Mark R. Lepper: ‘When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?’

Another angle of choice overload

In three experiments, each aimed at finding out whether a choice resulted in demotivation, satisfaction or frustration, Iyengar points out that having more choice doesn’t always result in that being worse and fewer choices being better.

There’s nuance to how we make choices. Some highlights are:

  • Context matters: If you are in a physical grocery store, fewer choices work if it offers novelty. About Trader Joe’s, for example, Iyengar said in a ‘Freakonomics’ podcast: “They don’t overwhelm you with choice, which is why you’re more willing to examine each novel choice.”
  • An online platform, however, like Amazon, a huge choice is what e-shoppers expect. Yet to help consumers overcome the bottomless stock of products, their search engine narrows down choices exactly to what a consumer wants.
  • If a brand offers new products from time to time, then that novelty is what draws their customers back to the brand to see what’s new. Yet, they also keep the number of items relatively sparse. Iyengar likens going to Trader Joe’s to a treasure hunt. She said: “When I walk into Trader Joe’s, it’s a variety-seeking exercise.”
  • There are times a consumer is variety-seeking, willing to try and experiment with new products. And yet there are other times, they just want a consistent service or product.
  • People who are clear about what they want are not as affected by choice overload.

Taking these extra nuances into consideration, try to evaluate your own marketing content to see if you might have to correct for choice overload.

Questions to ask yourself about your existing marketing materials.

Questions to ask yourself about your existing marketing materials

  • Do you have too many categories and subcategories for products on your web page? A website that appeals because of its simplicity and elegance is Los Angeles-based jeweler Bychari. Known for the signature “V-O-T-E” necklace worn by Michelle Obama, this website is a lesson on giving customers intriguing choices, not too many and not too much. Novelty is infused as new collections come online.
  • Does your webpage have too much information? Does it delay the customer from the two essential goals of a websiteselling goods and building your customer base? You want substance in your content that is concise, clean and catchy, clearing as much friction from the purchase as possible.
  • Have you recently made an evaluation of your web pages and your social media platforms to make sure you aren’t overwhelming your customers? Knowing where your customers are in terms of where they want to interact with you and how often helps determine how much information to provide. Being selective about which platforms to be on might help you reach your customers in ways that matter more to them.
  • How clear are you about what your audience wants from your products and/or service? Researching how your customers speak about your product gives you the language you can adapt for your marketing campaigns. See how Angelus Direct takes language in their customers’ reviews and makes it part of their own presentation in FAQs and featured tutorial videos.

Helping your customers whittle their choices to the essential is a delicate balancing act. Yet, the more you do to reduce the stress of choice overload, the greater your chances of sealing the sale.

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About the author

Elizabeth Chey

Elizabeth Chey consults international, community-based, and small nonprofits on communications, advocacy, strategic planning and capacity building. Her passion for arts, peace building and development compels her to tell complex, intimate stories about people working for social justice. She earned her MFA from New York University and a Journalism degree from Northwestern.