By Arav Talati. Edited by Arjun Chandrasekar.
Also referred to as ‘over choice, the choice overload theory occurs because of an abundance of choices for consumers. While we tend to assume that more choice is a good thing, in many cases, research has shown people get overwhelmed when presented with a large number of options. Choice overload can cause us to delay making decisions, even if they are important. This is because considering the many options available to us is taxing on our cognitive systems. Having more options can also lead to decreased satisfaction, lower confidence in our choice, and a higher chance of regretting the decision. Our minds tend to overanalyze all the options, and in the end, we may not even go with the choice that we wanted to in the first place.
The widespread assumption is that more choice equals more freedom, and more freedom is always a good thing. But the evidence from the theory of choice overload contradicts this idea: in many cases, more variety makes our lives more demanding and less pleasant. Now that certainly seems unbelievable, but many arguments have been made by psychologists that back this claim. The biggest reason is that our brains are too limited in their cognitive resources to evaluate all the options from a purely objective standpoint. More choices mean more decisions that we have to make, and making decisions uses up mental energy. As a result of not having the cognitive resources, sometimes we can end up simply abandoning the effort of making a choice altogether. Choice overload gets its name from its paralyzing effect on decision-making processes, and with so many evaluations to make, the brain sometimes can’t handle the stress.
An example of the choice overload theory was demonstrated in a research experiment done by Iyengar & Lepper in 2000. They set up shop in a grocery store, creating a tasting booth for either six or 24 varieties of jams (from which the more-standard flavors, like strawberry, were removed). Shoppers were invited to stop by the booths, try as many of the jams as they wanted, and they were given a $1 off coupon for that brand’s jam. The table with the greater variety did attract more customers (60% of those who walked by), relative to the table with fewer selections (40%), suggesting that the availability of more options was, at least initially, appealing to people. However, of those who stopped at the table with only six flavors, about 30% ended up later purchasing jam; when the table had 24 flavors, a mere 3% of customers ended up using the coupon. This research experiment’s evidence supported the choice overload theory, making it much more credible.
It’s obvious why choice overload is a problem: it makes it harder for us to make decisions, and it can make us feel so overwhelmed that we give up or put off the choice until later. Serious consequences can arise if it leads us to procrastinate on important decisions. By learning about overchoice, we prevent ourselves from making similar mistakes as knowing about choice overload can allow us to evaluate the many options with a much clearer mind!