Cover Story

Do you like your orange juice organic or regular, with or without calcium, or with minimal or maximal pulp?

How about your toothpaste? Is it the herbal variety with added fluoride, the cavity-busting option with baking soda or the original formula with flavor crystals?

Or maybe the thought of having to select any of those options is keeping you out of the grocery store entirely--you'd rather scrape by on what's still in the house. Although an explosion of consumer choices may mean we sometimes get exactly what we want, too many choices can also overwhelm us to the point where we choose nothing at all, and in the worst-case scenarios, may even erode our well-being, finds a fresh line of research by psychologists critically examining today's marketing climate.

"The presumption is, self-determination is a good thing and choice is essential to self-determination," says Barry Schwartz, PhD, a Swarthmore College psychologist and author of "The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less" (Ecco, 2004). "But there's a point where all of this choice starts to be not only unproductive, but counterproductive--a source of pain, regret, worry about missed opportunities and unrealistically high expectations."

In fact, some researchers find that too much choice can actually lead people to take less positive risks in making selections and to use simplifying strategies in lieu of more considered choices.

That said, psychologists also are studying ways to help people choose more wisely, so their visit to the commodity jungle becomes an informed journey that maximizes self-determination rather than undermines it.

When less is more

Social psychologists Sheena Iyengar, PhD, a management professor at Columbia University Business School, and Mark Lepper, PhD, a psychology professor at Stanford University, were the first to empirically demonstrate the downside of excessive choice. In a 2000 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP, Vol. 79, No. 6), the team showed that when shoppers are given the option of choosing among smaller and larger assortments of jam, they show more interest in the larger assortment. But when it comes time to pick just one, they're 10 times more likely to make a purchase if they choose among six rather than among 24 flavors of jam.

Next, Iyengar sought to examine consumer choices with higher stakes to see if a greater investment in the outcome meant people would make different or better choices. In a study under review at JPSP, she and Wei Jiang, PhD, a finance professor at Columbia Business School, analyzed retirement-fund choices--ranging from packages of two to 59 choices--among some 800,000 employees at 647 companies.

"With 401(k)s, people are given enormous incentives to participate through tax shelters and employer matches," Iyengar comments. "So, essentially, if you choose not to participate, you're throwing away free money."

Instead of leading to more thoughtful choosing, however, more options led people to act like the jam buyers: When given two choices, 75 percent participated, but when given 59 choices, only 60 percent did. In addition, the greater the number of options, the more cautious people were with their investment strategies, the team found.

Relatedly, too much choice also can lead people to make simple, snap judgments just to avoid the hassle of wading through confusing options--which ironically can sabotage a company's marketing plan, finds social psychologist Alexander Chernev, PhD, of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. In a paper in press in the Journal of Consumer Research, Chernev found that when people were offered variants of the same brand of toothpaste--cavity-prevention, tartar-control and teeth-whitening types, for instance--they tended to switch to another brand that offered a single option.

"If you introduce a product just for the sake of introducing a new product," says Chernev, "you can end up with several products that target the same customer. The customer has no idea how to decide and may therefore switch to another brand that doesn't require making tradeoffs."

Choosy choosers

Luckily, research also suggests some coping strategies for the mega-choice milieu we find ourselves in. In a 2003 JPSP paper (Vol. 85, No. 1), Chernev reports on four studies where he finds that the bigger the assortment, the harder it is for people to choose, except under one condition: when they enter with an articulated preference.

In that case, they often choose what Nobel Laureate Herb Simon, PhD, first referred to as a "satisficing" option: the first decent choice that fits their preference as opposed to exhaustively scanning all options until finding the perfect, or "maximizing" one.

Indeed, satisficing seems like a good overall strategy for choosing, Schwartz believes. In a 2002 paper in JPSP (Vol. 83, No. 5), he and his colleagues found that people who strive for maximization are more prone to depression and perfectionism, more likely to compare themselves negatively with others and more prone to regret than those who use satisficing strategies.

Such maximizers should learn from satisficers, Schwartz advises: Study the options, then settle on something you feel good, if not perfectly, about; let informed sources like Consumer Reports choose for you; don't compare your acquisitions to others'; and don't wallow in regret--since, in the long run, people feel worse about inaction than action, finds research by Cornell University social psychologist Tom Gilovich, PhD.

The result?

"You may do slightly less well objectively, but you'll feel better about the results," Schwartz says. "Then you can take all of the time you would have spent choosing breakfast cereal, jeans, toothpaste and dental floss," he says, "and nurture the things that really make you happy."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.