Perhaps it’s a natural instinct, but many of us seem to excel in over-complicating things (we’re both putting up our hands here!). We like to think that more is better, but that is not the case when it comes to helping people make choices. In this episode we’re going to talk about how many choices we should offer people.
In the year 2000, a professor from Columbia University undertook what has become known as the jam study. In this study, Sheena Iyengar and her colleagues first displayed 24 jam jars in a busy supermarket in California, which carried 348 varieties of jam, and encouraged shoppers to taste them for free. This abundance of choice saw 60% of customers stopping and tasting the jam, however only a measly 3% made a purchase.
Next, the researchers set up the display with just six jam jars and stood back to see what would happen. This time only 40% of customers stopped for a free taste. But astoundingly, the purchases went up tenfold, to 30%. Sheena Iyengar has published numerous journal articles about this topic and also a book ‘The art of choosing’.
What does it mean for us as enablers of change? We think it means we need to stop providing so many options that it overwhelms our clients. Iyengar suggests a few ways to take the pain out of decision-making. Firstly, cut back the number of options we provide. Less really is more. There’s a small amount of research that suggests between four and five choices are optimal (Johnson et al., 2012) so we think between three and six sounds good (depending on the decision and the decision maker). Secondly, make things concrete, so that people can better understand the differences between choices and the associated consequences. Thirdly, categorise the products so it reduces the actual number of items being considered.
It is easy to conclude that we should list all the various alternatives, even if there are dozens of them. Perhaps we think this shows how much we know about a topic. Taking the third suggestion from above, an example might be which new crop to plant. To simplify this situation we could group some of the options together, such as winter crops or summer crops, and then within those have other groupings, such as whether they are salt tolerant or not. That then provides a series of smaller choices.
We should mention that there have been critics of this research. Scheibehenne et al. (2010) published a meta-analysis which showed that in similar experiments there was on average, a nil effect. They concluded that “more choice is better” when regarding consumption quantity and when decision makers had well-defined preferences already. Earlier research by Greifeneder et al. (2010) indicated that the effects of too much choice was associated with choice complexity, i.e., when alternatives were differentiated on many attributes, but not when the alternatives were differentiated on just a few attributes.
On a different note, we’d like to acknowledge that Sheena, the author of the initial work, is blind and has been so since the age of 16. She has a rare genetic condition that degraded her retinas, so by the age of nine she could no longer read. And then on top of that her father had a heart attack and died when she was just 13 years old. We admire her courage and tenacity.
Well, you’ve heard our thoughts, now we’d like to hear yours! Add a comment below the blog post and tell us about your experiences with offering too many choices, including any tips and further ideas about it. We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversation—join in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us!
Thanks folks for joining us on this Enablers of change episode. Remember to subscribe to our newsletter if you’d like to know when new episodes are available. And if you liked what you heard, there’s only one thing we ask you to do, tell your friends so they can join the conversation!
Chernev, A., Böckenholt, U., & Goodman, J. (2015). Choice overload: A conceptual review and meta‐analysis. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 25(2), 333-358. Available online
Greifeneder, R., Scheibehenne, B., & Kleber, N. (2010). Less may be more when choosing is difficult: Choice complexity and too much choice. Acta psychologica, 133(1), 45-50. Available online
Iyengar, S. (2010). The art of choosing. Hachette UK.
Iyengar, S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of personality and social psychology, 79(6), 995.
Johnson, E. J., Shu, S. B., Dellaert, B. G., Fox, C., Goldstein, D. G., Häubl, G., … & Weber, E. U. (2012). Beyond nudges: Tools of a choice architecture. Marketing Letters, 23(2), 487-504.
Scheibehenne, B., Greifeneder, R., & Todd, P. M. (2010). Can there ever be too many options? A meta-analytic review of choice overload. Journal of consumer research, 37(3), 409-425.Available online