The problem of too many choices

one of two shelves of BBQ sauces

A gelateria in Vancouver, British Columbia offers two hundred eighteen flavors of gelato. After you spend forty-five minutes studying all the choices, make your decision and pay, you spend ten minutes eating it and another ten wondering whether another choice would have tasted better. That’s the problem with too many choices. (As an aside, my husband does not recommend the blueberry jalapeño.)

Recently, an interior designer came to our house to talk about fabric colors for a new chair. I suggested blue and after she looked at our rugs and the rest of the furniture in the room, we agreed on that color. Later, she dropped off blue fabric samples, sixteen of them. I was able to narrow down a little, because I didn’t want ones that felt scratchy, but choosing the right blue was impossible.  Finally, I asked my neighbor, who does interior design as a sidelight, and she declared that most of the blues were candidates for jeans, thus resolving my dilemma.

The challenge involved in facing too many choices is not unique to me. Years ago, many Russians immigrated to our community and found themselves stressed by all the options they encountered in our stores.

Go to Google and you’ll find these titles: “Too Many Choices:  A Problem that Can Paralyze,” “Choices: Lost in the Aisles,” and “Too Many Choices Can Lead to Bad Decisions.” There were so many articles and research reports on the topic — too many, really — that I had to stop searching.

Only one choice here: not to buy it:>)

Only one choice here: not to buy it:>)

I’ll focus on just one piece of research, called the “jam study,” which has been replicated using chocolate, speed dating, and other subjects. In a gourmet market, researchers set out samples of jams, alternating between twenty-four jams and six jams. A greater percentage of customers were attracted to the large assortment than to the small one, but the latter were much more likely to purchase the jam. According to the principal researcher, Professor Sheena Iyengar, that study “raised the hypothesis that the presence of choice might be appealing as a theory, but in reality, people might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating.”

Others have challenged this, saying that decision-making difficulties come from an overload of information about each choice. One example we can all relate to is choosing internet, phone and television cable service.

Mentioned in the jam study article was a fascinating example related to choice. In comparing how American and French families “coped after making the heart-wrenching decision to withdraw life-sustaining treatment from an infant,” the study concluded that “French families were better able to cope. Why? Because in France, “the doctors decide, unless explicitly challenged by the parents.” Not true in the U.S. Here, it’s parents who  decide. U.S. parents experienced more anger and confusion and focused more on what might or should have happened differently, all of which makes perfect sense.

In a lighter vein, sitting at Starbucks recently it was evident that we demand choices.  One, two or three shots? More foam? Less foam?  Extra hot?  Not so hot?” In this situation it’s not the customers who might get confused and frustrated by the number of options, but the baristas.





About stillalife

I retired June 30, 2010 after working for 40 years in the field of education and most recently doing school public relations/community outreach in a mid-size urban school district. I wrote for superintendents and school board members. Now I'm writing for me and I hope for you. In this blog, I offer my own views coupled with the latest research on how to preserve our physical and mental health as we age, delve into issues most of us over 50 can relate to like noticing wrinkles and forgetting where we left our keys, discuss the pros and cons of different ways to engage our minds and bodies after we leave the workplace, and throw in an occasional book review, all peppered with a touch of humor, irony, and just plain silliness. Also, I'm on the third draft of my second novel since retirement.
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