What is the Paradox of Choice?

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The paradox of choice, popularized by psychologist Barry Schwartz in a 2004 book, is the theory that having more options, or choices, makes it harder for people to make a decision, potentially hurting their well-being in the process.

The theory has been tested and analyzed in many different ways over the years. Perhaps the most popular experiment, when it comes to business, involves samples of jam at a supermarket.

In this experiment, researchers arranged free samples of a brand of jam, and asked people to try different flavors. In one scenario, there were 6 different varieties. And in the other, there were 24.

Traditional thinking would have you believe that more options is better, because consumers can pick the one that best fits their needs. However, the results of the study showed something else happened entirely. Although more people tried the jam when they were presented with 24 options vs. 6, much fewer ended up buying the product.

And so the paradox of choice theory tells us that there is a point at which offering too many options makes it difficult to make a decision, and that consumers may not make a decision at all as a way of coping.

Paradox of Choice and Your Business

Though this theory has been applied to a number of different areas of our lives, the implications for companies is clear. The more variations of your product or service you offer, the more you risk crossing this line and turning them off.

Often, this way of thinking runs counter to what most of think of as good product development. If we see consumers asking for new features, or different styles, or if we observe them turning to a similar product that our competitors offer, we naturally come to the conclusion that we should offer something that fits what they’re looking for. We want to have something for everyone.

But when this strategy is taken to its logical conclusion, we end up developing a large number of variations on our products that are so similar it makes the consumers’ job (and the marketers who have to convince them) much harder.

Pushback on the Paradox of Choice

It is fair to say that in the years since his book was first published, there have been a number of criticisms of Mr. Schwartz’s conclusions. Subsequent studies have shown the opposite results, that consumers prefer more choice, and that having different options actually expands the market for certain products.

Today, it is widely thought that the paradox of choice applies in some cases and not in others.

What You Should Do

If you are involved in the decision making at the product level at your company, it is your job to understand the paradox of choice, and test for it.

Think you might have too many different options? Try a split test where you take some away and see if that helps conversion rate. Consider simplifying the decision by combining features of one option with another, and limit the choices as much as possible.

Think you have room to add new varieties but worried about the impact that might have? Again, you can test it out before you invest in the new development. Consumer research and onsite testing can help you determine if there is room to create new options that would sell.