Chapter I:
The effect of too much choice

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In today’s market democracies, people face an ever-increasing number of options to choose from. People may choose between careers, places to live, holiday destinations, or a seemingly infinite number of consumer products. As I will outline in more detail below, an increase in the number of choices has many advantages. But can there also be such a thing as too much choice? Does an increase in assortment sizes at some point lead to negative consequences? Lately, a growing number of scholars in psychology have suggested that when the number of choices increases beyond a certain point, people’s motivation to choose and their satisfaction with the chosen alternative decreases. But how reliable and robust is this so-called too-much-choice effect? Can it be generalized to many situations or does it depend on certain boundary conditions instead? What are the theoretical underpinnings and explanations of the effect and what does it tell us about the underlying cognitive processes and mechanisms? What consequences follow for applied research in public policy making and marketing and what implications does the effect have on theories of decision making and human reasoning?

In this dissertation, I aim to answer these questions. In Chapter I, I will start by reviewing the main arguments—from several disciplines, including psychology, philosophy, economics, marketing, and biology—in favor of having many options. Building on this, I will give a more precise definition of the too-much-choice effect, discuss its theoretical underpinnings, and summarize the empirical evidence supporting its occurrence. I will further show that the theory behind the effect has some weaknesses. Based on a literature review and my own series of failed attempts at replicating the effect, in Chapter II, I will show that the effect is far less robust than previously thought and that it probably depends on certain boundary conditions instead. In Chapter III I will identify, discuss, and empirically test some potential boundary conditions, including individual differences and changes in environmental structure. To summarize and to provide a more coherent picture of the too-much-choice effect, in Chapter IV I will present a meta-analysis designed to estimate the mean effect size across all available studies, including my own, and to determine whether a further search for moderator variables is justified. In Chapter V I will discuss and critically evaluate alternative theoretical accounts of why and when a too-much-choice effect might occur that could be tested in future research. In the following, I will begin by providing some examples of the increasing number of choices in today’s market democracies.

The proliferation of choice

In modern and affluent societies such as many found in Europe or North America, the number of choices is ever increasing across many domains of daily life. Horovitz (2004) provides a number of examples that illustrate this “variety revolution” (Postrel, 2005): Dreyer’s, which offered 34 flavors of their ice cream in 1977, sold 250 in the year 2004. Arby’s sold one kind of roast beef sandwich when it was founded in 1964; in 2004 it sold 30 sandwiches. According to Horovitz, Starbucks has 19,000 ways it can serve a cup of coffee. He further reports that Tropicana, which had two kinds of orange juice a decade ago, now has 24. Frito-Lay started with two types of potato chips; now it offers 60. When Whole Foods opened in 1974, it sold two kinds of lettuce. Now according to Horovitz it sells 40 different kinds.

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Even more extreme figures can be obtained from the Internet. The online music store iTunes currently offers more than 5 million songs for 99 cent apiece. By May 2007, the online DVD rental company Netflix offered 75,000 different DVDs. At the same time, the German bookseller amazon.de offered 2,257,828 German books while its U.S. counterpart amazon.com offered a staggering 5,980,889 English books and even, among other products, 858 different jams.

This wide proliferation of choices raises the question if having more options to choose from is an unambiguously good thing or if there can also be something like having too much choice. Below, I will summarize the literature on the effects of increasing assortment sizes, which can be roughly categorized into three categories: advantageous, harmful, or of little or no effect. As I will show, viewing an increase in choices as advantageous represents the traditional and somewhat established view of economics and psychology on human decision making. Considering many choices as harmful, and thus supporting the idea of too much choice, challenges this view. The third, no-effect category speaks in favor of humans as adaptive decision makers and provides yet another alternative account of human reasoning.

More is better: Advantages of large assortments

In the following, I will summarize some of the benefits that come with the increasing proliferation of choice in modern societies.

Individual freedom

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Having options is commonly regarded as an important prerequisite of personal freedom as it allows an individual to live life according to his or her own agenda. Having options is what brings autonomy (Dowding, 1992). As pointed out by Postrel (2005), people are different in many ways and abundant choice accommodates this variation. On the other hand, in a world of few choices, whether of consumer goods, mates, or careers, individual differences may become a source of alienation and unhappiness. For example, imagine someone who loves opera but who lives in a rural environment without an opera house nearby and without anyone to share the enjoyment.

Motivation

In a study by Zuckerman, Porac, Lathin, Smith, and Deci (1978) in which students had to solve a puzzle, performance and motivation increased for students who could personally choose from among six different puzzles as compared to another group of students who got the same puzzles assigned to them by the experimenter. Along the same lines, Langer and Rodin (1976) found that inhabitants of a nursing home who could choose among seemingly trivial things like when to watch a movie or how to arrange their furniture enjoyed an increase in health and well-being. On the other hand, elimination of choice made people feel helpless and hopeless (see also Taylor, 1979).

Matching of preferences and search costs

In a market context, a large variety increases the likelihood of satisfying diverse consumers and because it facilitates competition, it eventually drives price down and quality up. In view of this, the philosopher Gerald Dworkin (1982, p. 60) wrote:

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One of the ways in which increased choice contributes to the welfare of individuals is by increasing the probability that they will satisfy their desires. People want various things—goods and services, status, affection, power, health, security—and their chances of getting these things are often enhanced if they have more options to choose among. My chances of finding a shirt I like is greater if I have ten different shirts to choose among than if I have only two.

There are also other reasons why people benefit from having many options. Choosing from a large assortment that is assembled at one place reduces the costs of search for more options and allows for more direct comparison between options. As a consequence, a large assortment makes it easier to get a sense of the overall quality distribution in the relevant domain, which leads to better-informed choice. It can also lead to more confidence because it is less likely that a potentially better alternative is missing.

Desire for variety

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As has been summarized by Kahn (1995), if people select more than one option at a time (e.g. for future use) or if they repeatedly choose from the same assortment, there are several other ways that large assortments can be beneficial to individuals: An increased variety, for instance, meets a desire for change and novelty, as a result of satiation with the usual or mere curiosity (Ariely & Levav, 2000). Being allowed to choose from a variety of options and to diversify one’s portfolio also provides insurance against uncertainty or miscalculation of one’s own future preferences (see also Simonson, 1990).

In some cases, the benefits of choosing from large assortments seem to go beyond the maximization of one’s immediate enjoyment or satisfaction. For example, Ratner, Kahn, and Kahneman (1999) ran a series of experiments that involved repeated choice of music. Individuals sometimes chose songs that led to lower satisfaction for the time being. The authors conjectured that memories for sequences that vary in quality are more positive than memories for sequences that have a low variance, even if in the latter case the mean quality is higher. If so, people who sometimes chose a less-preferred option might aim for favorable memories of the overall series rather than to maximize immediate enjoyment. But as a pre-requisite, a certain amount of variety is necessary.

Advantages from a biological perspective

As laid out in a review article by Hutchinson (2005), many aspects of choice are not unique to humans but can also be found among animals that choose a mate or forage for food. According to Hutchinson, there are several reasons why having more options to choose from may be beneficial for animals: For food choice, having many different alternatives buffers against potential harm from changes in the environment, such as seasonality or the presence of others competing for the same resources.

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In mate choice, potential partners attract more attention and are easier to find in the first place if they group in clusters (so-called leks). For animals that actively search for a mate (females for most species), leks reduce the travel time between potential (male) mates and thereby reduce energy consumption and predator risk for those who search. As an additional advantage due to the reduced travel time, in larger leks more mates can be inspected and/or they can be inspected for a longer period of time, which leads to greater accuracy and eventually to an increased expected reward. There also seems to be some evidence that low-quality mates avoid large leks because they compete less effectively there. In addition, having shorter intervals between potential mates reduces memory load because past encounters do not have to be remembered for too long. Hutchinson further reviews several studies showing that various animals like crickets or eagle owls prefer to compare potential mates relative to each other, which is easier if they group in leks. A small lek on the other hand comes with the risk of currently containing no acceptable mates at all.

While the studies reviewed by Hutchinson are mainly concerned with animals, there are reasons to believe that these advantages also hold for humans. For example, in close resemblance to the forming of leks in animals, people also form clusters, as documented by a sound body of research in the social sciences on groups as diverse as antique dealers and prostitutes (Ashworth, White, & Winchester, 1988; Miller, 1996).

Increased sales

For manufacturers, large assortments have the additional advantage of taking up more space on the supermarket shelf, which attracts more attention from the customer and thus increases choice probability. According to Koelemeijer and Oppewal (1999) it is well known among marketers that making people enter a store increases the probability of making a sale. If a store that offers a large assortment attracts more people, it should also sell more than a store that offers a small assortment.

More is (subjectively) better: Preferences for large choice sets

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In line with these advantages, empirical evidence suggests that people as well as animals tend to prefer large assortments and large variety over smaller ones (Brown, Read, & Summers, 2003; Hutchinson, 2005) and that stores that offer a large variety have a competitive advantage over those that offer less (Anderson, 2006; Arnold, Oum, & Tigert, 1983; Craig, Gosh, & McLafferty, 1984; Mazursky & Jacoby, 1986).

Preferences for niche products

Especially on the Internet where distribution costs are low and a large number of potential consumers can easily be reached, retailers with large assortments are successful because they meet a demand for niche products and specialties. According to Anderson (2006), of the 16,000 albums that are offered on digital jukebox, a website that offers music downloads, 98% had at least one track purchased per quarter-year. Of the 1 million tracks that were offered by the online music store iTunes in 2005, every one sold at least once in a quarter.

These examples reflect the diversity inherent in the population and they suggest that there is considerable demand for niche products, but this demand is only revealed once people are offered a large number of choices. While there is little doubt about the existence of this demand, scholars have interpreted it in different ways. Some see it as “egocasting,” the narrow pursuit of one’s personal taste (Rosen, 2005). Others praise it as mass customization and are glad that the tyranny of the lowest-common-denominator fare and the times of poor supply-and-demand matching are coming to an end (Anderson, 2006).

Inherited preference for choice

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The preference for large assortments over smaller ones has also been explained from an evolutionary perspective: Brown et al. (2003) conjectured that preference for choice may be a fundamental part of our natural endowment because it would be difficult to think of a natural environment in which there would be a zero, or even negative correlation between the amount of choice and the value of the outcome that is eventually chosen. The authors acknowledged, though, that this relationship might not hold for artificial environments that consumers typically face.

Increased food consumption

Human subjects who received a large quantity of three different flavors of yogurt consumed an average of 23% more yogurt compared to people who received the same quantity of yogurt of only one flavor (Rolls, Rowe, Rolls, Kingston, Megson, & Gunary, 1981). In a similar fashion, in a series of experiments, Kahn and Wansink (2004) showed that children as well as adults eat more candies if the number of options increases. In their experiments, participants chose from assortments of jelly beans and M&Ms that consisted of either 6 or 24 different colors. What is remarkable about their results is that even though M&Ms differ in color, they all taste the same, which rules out the hypothesis of flavor-specific satiety as an explanation of the increased consumption. Instead, the authors suggested that consumption is controlled by the mere perception of variety. In line with this hypothesis, the authors found that participants’ consumption quantity is correlated with their perceived variety and that it is perceived variety rather than actual variety that eventually matters.

As far as animal food consumption is concerned, animals that are not specialized in one particular food seem to consume more if diversity is large. This is probably because nutrients complement each other and, especially for folivores (herbivores that specialize in eating leaves), a varied diet helps the animal avoid over-ingesting toxins that are specific to particular plants (Hutchinson, 2005).

Perceived attractiveness and satisfaction

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In an experiment in which participants had to rate the attractiveness of cut flower assortments with sizes ranging from 1 to 12 flowers, Oppewal and Koelemeijer (2005) found that, at least within the range they tested, people rate the assortment as more attractive the larger it gets.

Along the same lines, in a series of three studies in the laboratory and in the field involving choices among printed magazines and different types of coffee flavors, Mogliner, Rudnick, and Iyengar (2006) consistently found that satisfaction with the chosen option and also with the selection process itself increased with the amount of choice and variety people perceived. Interestingly, and in line with the results of Kahn and Wansink (2004), in their studies, the perceived variety did not depend on the objective number of options but rather on the number of categories into which the options were grouped, such that more categories led to an increase in the perceived variety.

Less is more: The effect of having too much choice

Given the wide proliferation of choice in modern societies and the numerous advantages that come with it, having many options to choose from seems to be an unambiguously good thing. Yet recently some scholars have started to ask if there can also be something like having too much choice. In the following, I will lay out reasons and empirical findings for this latter proposition, which stipulates that at some point, a further increase in the number of choices leads to negative consequences. I will start by summarizing the economic argument on the benefits of having fewer options and by defining what, exactly, is meant by the effect of too much choice.

Economic limits to the number of options

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In classical economic theory it is a basic principle that expanding the choice set cannot make a consumer worse off (Benartzi & Thaler, 2001). From this perspective, the only reason why the full demand for variety on the side of the consumers will commonly not be supplied is because producers have to balance variety against the lower unit production costs of fewer variants (Lancaster, 1990). If production costs are the only factor that limits assortment size, the amount of variety should increase if production costs decrease. According to Anderson (2006), this is exactly what happens. As an example, he points to the fact that the number of options to choose from is commonly much higher on the Internet because there, the costs to produce and stock a variety of goods that appeal to consumers is commonly much lower than in regular stores.

Definition of the too-much-choice effect

Recent empirical findings suggest that an overly large number of options can indeed lead to negative consequences such as dissatisfaction, regret, disappointment, decreased motivation to make a choice, or decreased consumption rates, all of which are manifestations of what has been termed the too-much-choice effect (Huberman, Iyengar, & Jiang, 2007; Iyengar & Lepper, 2000), choice overload (Chernev, 2003a, 2003b; Reutskaja & Hogarth, 2005), or hyperchoice (Mick, Broniarczyk, & Haidt, 2004). Thus, in the following, to refer to these negative consequences I will use the terms too much choice and choice overload interchangeably.

When talking about choice overload, it is also important to define what is actually meant by the term “choice.” According to Dowding (1992), choice has three meanings. It describes the ability to select an option (“a person is capable of choice”), the alternative that a person actually selects (“this is my choice”), and a set of options (“a store offers a lot of choice”). This distinction is important because an increase in choice can mean different things for different types of choice. For example, one’s ability to make choices commonly increases with power, yet this is not what is usually meant when talking about choice overload. In the literature on choice overload, most often “choice” refers to a set of options.

No definition of what constitutes “too much”

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Previous research has not provided an exact definition of what constitutes “too much” choice. Iyengar and Lepper (2000) described it as a “reasonably large, but not ecologically unusual, number of options” (p. 996). From this perspective, the size of an assortment can only be evaluated relative to the distribution of assortment sizes that would be expected within a certain environment.

With regard to choices of animals, Hutchinson (2005) argued that choice overload effects are seldom found in animals because they are adapted to assortment sizes that naturally occur in their environment. If this holds true for humans as well, in contradiction of Iyengar and Lepper’s notion, it might be that too much choice looms in cases in which the assortment exceeds ecologically usual sizes.

Limited information capacity

Scholars (e.g. Mogilner et al., 2006), have conjectured that too much choice occurs for assortment sizes that exceed George A. Miller’s magical number seven plus or minus two (Miller, 1956) because, so the argument goes, set sizes above that threshold are beyond humans’ capacity for processing information. Yet a closer look at Miller’s original publication renders this a rather ill-conceived definition. In Miller’s work, the “magical number seven” applies to two distinct psychological concepts: (1) the span of absolute judgments on one single dimension such as the loudness or frequencies of tones, the taste intensities of salt solutions, or the intensity of a vibrator on the chest region; and (2) the span of immediate or short-term memory. In the following, I will lay out both concepts in more detail.

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With regard to the first concept, Miller argued that even though judgments of one-dimensional stimuli are severely limited in the first place, this limitation only holds for absolute judgments and not for relative comparisons of stimuli. Also, most relevant stimuli in real-world environments are not one-dimensional but multi-dimensional, and every additional dimension increases the ability to discriminate. As an example, Miller presented data from experiments in which participants were asked to identify different frequencies of tones by assigning numerals to them. In such a task, apparently most humans can only judge about six different classes without error. Yet, when tones also differ on an additional dimension, such as loudness, the number of correct assignments increases. If tones differ on six independent dimensions, for example, duration or rate of interruption, Miller reported experimental data showing that participants could identify about 150 categories without error—the more dimensions added, the more categories that can be identified. As a consequence, Miller stated that “everyday experience teaches us that we can identify accurately any one of several hundred faces, any one of several thousand words, any one of several thousand objects, etc.” (p.87), and for real-world situations, “the limit is probably in the thousands, if indeed there is a limit” (p.91). Thus, what initially looks like a severe limitation in fact provides little grounds to define choice overload.

For the second concept, the capacity of short-term memory, Miller also found the limit to be around seven initially. Here, Miller explicitly referred to a limit in the number of items, or chunks, as he called them. Yet drawing on the results of several experiments, Miller concluded that memory span seems to be almost independent of the amount of information per item, and that humans in their daily life constantly group and recode information and thus manage to break the informational bottleneck of memory span. As an example, Miller described the process of learning radiotelegraphic code: In the beginning one hears dit and dah as separate chunks, but as learning proceeds, these sounds will be organized into letters, and what used to be one-sound-per-chunk then becomes one-word-per-chunk. In Miller’s terms, this recoding process shows how a person can increase the capacity of his or her short-term memory by increasing the amount of information per chunk, and Miller conjectured that in one form or another we constantly engage in this kind of recoding in daily life. As a consequence, short-term memory hardly provides a guideline for defining choice overload.

Empirical findings of having too much choice

In the year 2000, Iyengar and Lepper published a widely cited paper in which they argued that an overabundance of options decreases satisfaction and the motivation to choose. Their research attracted a lot of attention from inside and outside psychology. An analysis of the number of citations the paper has received since its publication suggests that interest in the topic is still growing (Figure 1).

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Figure 1: Number of citations for the Iyengar and Lepper (2000) paper according to the Web of Science Citation Report

Iyengar and Lepper, 2000

In their paper, Iyengar and Lepper reported results from a series of three studies that they conducted in the field and in the laboratory. In the field study, data was collected on the sales floor of an upscale grocery store in Stanford, California. At the entrance to the store, the researchers set up a tasting booth with one brand of exotic jam (Wilkin & Sons) on two consecutive Saturdays. The booth displayed either a small assortment of 6 jams or a large assortment of 24 jams. The two different assortments were shifted on an hourly basis. While the large assortment contained all but the most common jam flavors of that brand, the jams in the small assortment consisted of the most, least, and medium attractive flavors. The attractiveness was determined by a pretest in which students rated the attractiveness of the flavors based on their names. On the days of the experiment, every consumer who approached the booth received a coupon to get 1 dollar off any jam of that brand. The coupons looked slightly different for the two experimental conditions. Therefore, by counting the number of redeemed coupons at the cashiers’ registers the researchers knew the percentage of customers who purchased a jam within each condition.

In line with the idea that people are attracted by large assortments, the authors found that more consumers approached the tasting booth when it showed the large assortment as compared to the small assortment. Yet, when it came to actual purchase, 30% of all consumers who saw the small assortment of 6 jams at the tasting display actually bought one of the jams (with a coupon), while in the comparison group that could taste from a large assortment of 24 jams, only 3% of the people redeemed a coupon for a jam. The authors interpreted this finding as an effect of too much choice such that too many options decreased the motivation to make a choice.

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In the lab study, Iyengar and Lepper let two groups of participants choose one piece of chocolate to taste from an array of exotic Godiva chocolates (a Belgian chocolate brand). One group chose from 30 different Godiva chocolates (large assortment size), the other group from 6 different chocolates (small assortment size). As in the jam study, the 6 chocolate flavors in the small assortment were a subset of those in the large set. In extension to the jam study, the chocolate flavors from the large set were split into five small sets of 6 pieces each. These small sets were rotated between subjects so that at some point during the experiment each chocolate from the large set was also present in the small set.

In this study, participants who chose from the large assortment reported higher enjoyment of the decision than the participants who chose from the small assortment (6 vs. 4.7 on a 7-point Likert scale ranging from 1 [not at all] to 7 [extreme]). But at the same time, participants who chose from the large assortment reported higher difficulties (4.5 vs. 3.3) and more frustration (3.1 vs. 2.2) in making the decision and less satisfaction with the chocolate they finally chose (5.5 vs. 6.3). At the end of the experiment they were also less likely to accept a box of Godiva chocolate instead of money as compensation for their participation (12% vs. 48%, Cohen’s d=0.88). Iyengar and Lepper also found an effect of choice overload in a third study in which the quality of written essays decreased if the number of topics to choose from increased.

Chernev, 2003b

When people choose from different types of chocolate, Chernev (2003b) found that they are less confident with their decision when choosing from a large set of 16 chocolates as compared to a small set of 4 chocolates. In a series of two experiments, participants first had to choose a piece of chocolate and then were asked if they would like to switch to another piece that was recommended to them by the experimenter. Participants who chose from the set of 16 chocolates were more likely to switch compared to participants who chose from the set of 4 chocolates (82% vs. 74% in the first study; 75% vs. 69% in the second study; Cohen’s d=0.23 and 0.22, respectively). Insofar as switching indicates preference strength, these results can be interpreted as weaker preferences for options chosen from large assortments.

Huberman, Iyengar, and Jiang, 2007

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Huberman et al. (2007) found that the more retirement plans people have to choose from, the lower their probability of investing their money in any one of them. In their study, they analyzed archival data from 647 companies that offered their employees (a total of 793,794) the opportunity to invest part of their income in defined pension plans, so-called 401(k) plans. A 401(k) plan consists of a finite number of investment options, and participation requires choosing among them. In Huberman et al.’s data set, the number of investment options within each company ranged from 2 to 59 and the median number per plan was 13. The percentage of employees participating in the pension plan with 5 options to choose from was 72%, whereas for 35 options, participation dropped to 67.5%.

It should be noted, however, that these are cross-sectional data that do not allow for any causal interpretation. While the authors statistically controlled for influences of gender, age, tenure, neighborhood wealth, and annual compensation, there are still other factors that might explain these differences. For example, the reasons why companies offer varying number of options remain unknown and so do the reasons people have for (not) participating in the plan.

Reutskaja and Hogarth, 2005

In another study on choice overload, Reutskaja and Hogarth (2005) looked at how much people’s satisfaction with a hypothetical choice between gift boxes depends on the number of boxes being offered to them. In their experiments, participants saw either 5, 10, 15, or 30 gift boxes sketched on a computer screen in a between-subjects design. The boxes differed in shape and color. Participants were asked to examine the boxes and to state which one they would hypothetically buy to package a present for a friend. Next, participants were asked to rate their satisfaction with the choice process, the hypothetically chosen box, and the difficulty they experienced when making their decision. The items were similar to those used in Iyengar and Lepper’s (2000) chocolate experiment outlined above. To explore potential differences between Western and Eastern Europe, participants were recruited in Spain, Ukraine, and Belarus. What Reutskaja and Hogarth found was that satisfaction with the chosen box followed an inverted U-shape: Satisfaction was highest for the 10- (Spanish sample) and the 15-option (Eastern European sample) sets. For smaller and, more importantly, also for larger set sizes, mean satisfaction ratings decreased. In both samples, the gradients for the satisfaction with the decision-making process followed a similar inverted U-shape form while the difficulty of making the choice monotonically increased with the size of the assortment.

Shah and Wolford, 2007

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In the most recent study on the effect of too much choice, Shah and Wolford (2007) also found a curvilinear relationship between assortment size and the motivation to purchase. In their experiment, they offered participants the opportunity to purchase a black pen for a reduced price. The number of different pens to choose among was varied from 2 to 20 in increments of 2 pens. What they found was that for the lowest three assortment sizes of 2 to 6 pens, 46% of the participants purchased a pen. For the largest three sets between 16 and 20 pens, 33% purchased, while for the middle-sized assortments of 8–14 pens, the percentage of participants who purchased peaked at 70%.

Tendency to avoid large assortments

Along the same lines, a study by Lenton, Fasolo, and Todd (2005) suggests that in mate search, decision makers avoid overly large assortments and by this might protect themselves from having too much choice. In their study, decision makers were asked to imagine that they were presented with a list of potential mates to choose from, as in online dating. They were further asked to rate which of 10 different lists that ranged in size between one and 5,000 options they preferred. Most of the participants expressed a preference for lists that offered between 20 and 50 options. The lists that exceeded this size became increasingly unattractive, apparently because of higher expected choice difficulties.

Too much choice in animals

In his review, Hutchinson (2005) concluded that there is almost no evidence for choice overload in animals, which seems partly due to the fact that biologists have not explored this hypothesis so far. However, Hutchinson pointed out that according to Bernays (1999), some insects produce fewer eggs when presented with three different host plants as compared to only one. As a potential explanation, Bernays conjectured that in the presence of three plants, the animal was stimulated to move too often.

A brief history of choice overload

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Even though it is rarely addressed in current publications, the idea of too much choice can be traced back to Aristotle, who asked how a dog faced with the choice of two equally tempting meals could rationally choose between them. In the 14th century, the French philosopher Jean Buridan took up this question and concluded that in such a situation a rational decision maker would delay the choice to further assess the possible outcomes. His idea is often exemplified as an ass between two hay stacks that starves to death because it cannot decide which one to approach (Zupko, 2003).

Appetence conflicts

In psychology, it was Kurt Lewin (1951) who argued that so-called appetence–appetence conflicts between equally attractive options may lead to procrastination and decision avoidance. Choosing between several options has also been seen as difficult because most options then have to be forgone, which induces conflicting cognitions (Festinger, 1957). Building on this back in the early 1970s, the psychiatrist Zbigniew Lipowski (1970) extended the idea of choice conflict to more than two options. In what he called “the theory of attractive stimulus overload” he argued that the “massive output and variety of available material objects promoted by aggressive advertising” (p. 276) constitutes a situation in which decision makers are overwhelmed with attractive options. Lipowski argued that this situation would be specific to affluent industrial societies where individuals are confronted with a multitude of possible choices of career opportunities, living environments, styles of life, and modes of leisure. He further proposed that withdrawal from choice can be seen as a way to cope with the conflict arising from an overabundance of attractive alternatives and that this withdrawal can eventually lead to “passive pleasures of drug-induced altered states of consciousness” (p. 277).

Cognitive dissonance

In the 1960s, Anderson, Taylor, and Holloway (1966) showed experimentally that when the number of options increases from two to five, decision makers consider fewer attributes per item and are more likely to choose an alternative that others have chosen before, even if it does not suit them very well. In a second experiment, Anderson et al. provided empirical evidence that post-decisional dissonance increases with the number of available options. Here, dissonance refers to the perceived incompatibility of two or more attitudes or behaviors. In this second study, dissonance was operationalized as an increase in the desirability rating for the selected product after the choice had been made—an effect also known as postdecisional spreading of alternatives. Dissonance was especially high in cases in which all four options were initially rated as about equally desirable. Anderson et al. further argued that dissonance can be taken as a proxy for increased discomfort and displeasure.

Early notions of too much choice

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Interestingly, in their 1966 article, Anderson et al. pointed to even earlier evidence for the attractiveness of large assortments. Alderson and Sessions (1957, cited in Anderson et al., 1966) found that “women shoppers are attracted to stores carrying a wide assortment of merchandise” (Anderson et al., p. 62). And as an early example of having too much choice, Anderson et al. also mentioned the department store Macy’s in Manhattan, which in those days offered 129 styles of men’s white dress shirts while Korvette, a competing chain, only offered 351.

It is interesting to note that according to Anderson (2006), back in 1897 the Sears mail-order catalog listed 200,000 items including 67 different types of tea and 29 different types of cocoa. Thus, even though assortment sizes in many domains are with no doubt bigger today than they were in the past, the phenomenon of large assortment sizes itself is hardly a new one.

Theoretical explanations of the too-much-choice effect

Despite the growing body of empirical evidence in favor of the too-much-choice effect, its theoretical explanation is still sparse and thus far, promoters of the effect have put little effort into developing a coherent framework that explains when and why an increase in the number of options leads to negative consequences. This lack of theory is in sharp contrast to the numerous explanations for the opposite effect—in which decision makers benefit from an increase in assortment size—outlined above.

Preference uncertainty

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According to Huberman et al. (2007), an increased number of options exacerbates a chooser’s preference uncertainty. Yet unfortunately the authors did not elaborate on this statement. And as they did not explain what they meant by preference uncertainty, their explanation cannot be scrutinized or tested. Consequently, it cannot be ruled out that the concept of preference uncertainty is a mere redescription of the too-much-choice effect.

Anticipated regret

Besides decreased satisfaction and a decreased motivation to choose, the experience of regret, as well as the negative emotions that go along with it, is commonly seen as one indicator of having too much choice. The concepts of satisfaction and regret are akin. Regret and the closely related concept of counterfactual thinking (thoughts of what might have been) influence people’s satisfaction with an outcome. For example, despite their objectively better outcome, Olympic athletes who win a silver medal seem to be less happy than athletes who win a bronze medal (Medvec, Madey, & Gilovich, 1995). Medvec et al. reckoned that this is due to the ease with which counterfactual alternatives can be generated such that silver medalists are more likely to compare their outcome to the missed gold medal whereas bronze medalists are more likely to engage in downward comparison.

According to regret theory (Bell, 1982), disappointment theory (Loomes & Sugden, 1982), and also dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957), decisions will often be made so as to minimize the anticipated feeling of post-choice regret and disappointment (Zeelenberg, van Dijk, Manstead, & van der Pligt, 2000). Building on this, scholars have argued that the decreased motivation to choose due to choice overload can be explained by anticipated feelings of regret for the expected decision outcome (Botti & Iyengar, 2006; Schwartz, 2004). The line of argumentation goes as follows:

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When choosing from an assortment, the number of options that will not be chosen increases with the size of the assortment. Furthermore, the more options that will be forgone, the higher the probability of missing a better option, which is likely to increase anticipated regret (cf. Festinger, 1957). Empirical evidence suggest that the subjective feeling of loss increases when the number of forgone options increases from one to two (Carmon, Wertebroch, & Zeelenberg, 2003). Ayton (2000) envisioned one possible manifestation of this phenomenon: people with cable TV who spend all evening channel hopping because they are afraid they might be missing something.

As Schwartz (2004) has pointed out, one way to prevent regret is by choosing the best possible option. Yet this goal becomes harder with an increase in assortment size, because the more options there are, the more search will be necessary to find the best option. Another way to prevent anticipated regret and disappointment in a given decision situation might be to avoid making the decision at all (Beattie, Baron, Hershey, & Spranca, 1994; Inman & Zeelenberg, 2002).

However, as with preference uncertainty, the explanation of too much choice based on regret contains the danger of being circular: If satisfaction and regret are two sides of the same coin and satisfaction is the measure with which the effect of choice overload is diagnosed, little insight is gained by explaining overload with regret.

Prevention of preference matching

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Another explanation of the too-much-choice effect is that an increased number of options hinders choosers’ ability to identify the option that matches their preferences (Huberman et al., 2007). However, this explanation assumes that the decision maker already has preferences prior to choice. As will be outlined in more detail in the following section, this explanation contradicts a basic assumption of most research on choice overload, including the work of Iyengar and Lepper (2000), which is that in order to elicit the effect of too much choice, one needs a situation in which decision makers do not have well-defined prior preferences.

Lack of prior preferences as a necessary precondition

All the studies outlined above were based on situations and options that participants were not familiar with. In line with this, an important precondition of the too-much-choice effect seems to be the lack of clear goals or preferences prior to choice.

Empirical evidence for the importance of prior preferences

Roy O. Disney, cofounder of The Walt Disney Company, once said that “it's not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.” Likewise, previous research has shown that having prior preferences and predefined goals makes it easier and more satisfactory to choose from complex environments, provided that people’s preferences can be matched. And the probability that these prior preferences can indeed be matched rises with the number of available options (Kahn, 1995).

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Chernev (2003a) showed in a series of experiments that for people with preferences prior to choice (or “ideal points” as he terms them), the probability of choosing and satisfaction with the choice increase with assortment size. The author suggested that when people have a certain idea of what they want, they benefit from a large assortment because it makes it more likely they will find what they have in mind. For people without prior preferences, he found the opposite effect. In his experiments, prior to choice all participants were informed about the assortment structure and the relevant attributes. Prior preferences were experimentally induced by instructing some of the participants to think about and articulate which combination of attributes they liked best.

Likewise, in an experiment by Huffman and Kahn (1998) participants saw descriptions of either hotels or sofas that were described on many attributes. While people in one condition were instructed to familiarize themselves with the attributes and the different attribute levels, people in the other condtion were instructed to think about their preferred level within each attribute. In a subsequent (hypothetical) choice, people in the latter group were more satisfied with the outcome of their decisions.

Similar results were also obtained by Mogilner et al. (2006, Experiment 2). In their study, participants chose from an assortment of 144 different magazines. Half of the participants were instructed to choose a magazine they regularly read, which corresponds to the case of predefined goals in Huffman and Kahn’s study. The other half were instructed to choose a magazine that they did not regularly read, to prevent prior preferences. When asked about their satisfaction with the choice, the latter group without prior preferences was less satisfied. However, this result is not that surprising because it seems reasonable to assume that people regularly read those magazines that they like most.

Critical evaluation of prior preferences as an explanation for choice overload

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Despite the shortcomings of some of the empirical studies outlined above, from a conceptual perspective, it seems reasonable that without clear goals on hand, individual preferences first have to be constructed by relying on information offered by the choice context. Also, in this case options need to be compared relative to each other, whereas decision makers with a clearly defined preference already have a reference point at hand that they could use. With regard to the search strategy, Payne, Bettman, and Johnson (1992) conjectured that prior preferences lead to a very selective search in which people look for an option that matches their needs, terminate the search as soon as the desired option is found, and neglect the remaining assortment.

Taken together, there are convincing arguments that prior preferences can prevent choice overload. Also, it seems reasonable that choosing without any prior preferences requires additional effort because decision makers first might want to learn about the distribution of a given assortment and construct their preferences before they make a choice (Fischhoff, 1991). As the choice process becomes more difficult, uncertainty might increase, which in turn might decrease satisfaction and/or the motivation to choose.

However, even if satisfaction decreases due to a lack of prior preferences, this does not necessarily imply that it decreases even further with a growing assortment size. As a consequence, even though the lack of prior preferences is a necessary condition for the too-much-choice effect, this is not sufficient to explain the effect. Maybe learning about a distribution or the construction of preferences becomes harder or less accurate with more options to learn about. If this drives the effect, it would imply that individuals will not be able to shield themselves from additional information about options, and some scholars argue that individuals indeed cannot elide additional options (Schwartz, 2004).

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Even though explaining choice overload through the lack of prior preferences requires several auxiliary assumptions, compared to studies that merely look at the effect of assortment size, the research on ideal points and prior preferences is a conceptual advancement because it explicitly addresses individual differences as well as aspects of the underlying search and decision strategies. According to Brunswik (1955) and Simon (1955), a mere focus on the environment only provides an insufficient picture of most if not all psychological phenomena, while looking at the interaction between environment on the one hand and the individual that acts within that environment on the other is a much more fruitful approach. I will elaborate on the interaction between environment and decision strategies in more detail in the General Discussion in Chapter V.

Conflict and trade-off aversion

Another attempt to find a theoretical explanation for the effect of too much choice is to link it to the well-established finding showing that decision makers tend to avoid decisions that involve trade-offs due to conflicting attributes between options.

Empirical evidence of trade-off aversion

In a seminal paper on the effect of conflict on choice, Tversky and Shafir (1992) found that when deciding between two options people were more likely to defer choice when trade-offs had to be made as compared to a situation where one option dominated the other (such that one option was superior in every aspect). In their experiment, one group of participants were offered a hypothetical choice between buying a low-quality Sony CD player for $99 and buying nothing. A second group of participants were given a choice between the same low-quality Sony CD player for $99, a high-quality Aiwa CD player for $159, and nothing. They found that 34% of the participants chose nothing in the first group whereas in the second group, 46% of the participants chose nothing. The only difference between the two groups was the presence of an additional option (the Aiwa CD player), which presumably led to a conflict situation such that participants in the second group had to trade off quality against price; as a consequence, the motivation to choose any of the options was diminished. As an alternative explanation, it could be that the second option informed the participants that there was a wider range to choose from and that further search would be worthwhile.

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This latter explanation does not really fit with the results of a second study by Tversky and Shafir. Participants in this study received $1.50 as compensation for their participation in a previous, unrelated study. Subsequently, one group of participants got an offer to exchange the money for a metal pen; the other group got an offer to exchange the money for the same metal pen or for a plastic pen that was similar in quality. Similar to the results of the first study, participants in the latter group were more likely to keep their money (53%) compared to participants in the first group, where only 25% kept their money.

Tversky and Shafir’s findings of trade-off aversion were successfully replicated in other choice situations including medical decision making (Redelmeier & Shafir, 1995), consumer decisions for such things as light bulbs, CD changers, or cordless phones (Hsee & Leclerc, 1998), as well as choices among lotteries (Roe, Busemeyer, & Townsend, 2001).

In a series of experiments, Dhar (1997) found that the number of pre-choice thoughts people reported in a think-aloud protocol was much larger when two options were conflicting as compared to a situation in which one option dominated the other. Also, in his experiments there was no increase in deferral when participants could avoid the trade-off by choosing both options rather than only one.

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From the perspective of the coping literature, these examples of omission and deferral outlined above could also be understood as a defensive-avoidant coping strategy to escape difficult situations (Janis & Mann, 1977; Lazarus, 1966). In line with this interpretation, the tendency to defer choice is pronounced in cases in which sacred or highly consequential outcomes have to be traded off against each other, such as the desire for environmental friendliness and safety when purchasing a car (Luce, Bettman, & Payne, 1999).

Trade-offs and choice overload

Taken together, these results suggest that an increase in conflict or trade-offs can increase the tendency to avoid making a choice. While the studies on trade-off aversion are commonly based on choices between two options, supporters of the too-much-choice hypothesis have also argued that, similar to the notion of regret, when the number of options within a choice set increases, so do the number of trade-offs within that set (Shanteau & Thomas, 2000), and as I will outline below, numerous experimental results indicate that the tendency to avoid choice can increase with the addition of alternatives due to trade-offs. But before I outline the nature of this relationship in more detail, I will elaborate on what is commonly meant by the term trade-offs and the closely related concept of conflict.

The concepts of trade-off and conflict

Conflict does not have a standard formal definition (Tversky & Shafir, 1992; Dhar, 1997). Yet it is generally assumed that a conflict between two options arises if choosing between them implies that some advantageous aspects will eventually be forsaken. This would be the case if one option is better or more desirable on one attribute (e.g. price) while the other option is better on another attribute (e.g. quality) or if both of them hold unique and attractive features. Conflict implies that when making a choice in such a situation, trade-offs between attributes or attribute values are an unavoidable necessity, which is why the terms trade-off and conflict are often used interchangeably in the literature.

Conflict and negative correlation

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One way to formally express conflict is by calculating correlation coefficients between two attributes across all options within an assortment (e.g. Bettman, Johnson, Luce, & Payne, 1993). Yet correlations are just an approximate measure of conflict and the coefficients are difficult to interpret. If the correlation is negative, at least some options must conflict. Still, as long as the correlation is not r=-1.0 (i.e. perfect negative correlation), there can be some options that dominate others such that they are better on both attributes. In theory, even if the overall correlation is negative, one option could still dominate all the others, rendering the decision easy (Figure 2A). Also, at least with regard to Pearson’s correlation coefficients, it can be the case that there are no dominant options even though the correlation is not “perfect” (|r|≠1; Figure 2B). Similarly, if the correlation is positive, at least some dominated options must exist. Yet, as long as the positive correlation is not perfect (if it does not equal 1.0), it can still be the case that there is no option that dominates all others (Figure 2C).

Figure 2: Relationships between options on two attributes. 

Alternative ways to measure conflict

To overcome these measurement problems, one could calculate Goodman and Kruskal’s gamma between pairs of options (Goodman & Kruskal, 1954). To calculate gamma, all possible pairs of attributes on which the options conflict are summed up and designated as D. Likewise, the number of pairs that are in concordance are summed up and designated as C. A pair of attributes is said to conflict if each option is better than the other on one attribute. Concordances occur if one option is better on both attributes and thus locally dominates the other. The total number of pairs can be calculated as

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(1-1)

where a is the number of different attributes. The difference between the two measures is then divided by the sum of both measures:

(1-2)

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Thus, cases in which two options have similar attribute values are not taken into account. This measure can be interpreted as the degree to which one option dominates the other. For perfect dominance, gamma would equal 1, and the higher the conflict, the lower the gamma coefficient.

For attributes that are nominal rather than ordinal, van Herpen and Pieters (2002) calculated lambda coefficients between two attributes (Goodman & Kruskal, 1954). The lambda coefficient denotes the proportion by which the error in predicting one attribute is reduced when the other attribute is known, compared to a situation where the other attribute is unknown. A lambda of zero indicates that there is no relationship between two attributes whereas a lambda of one indicates a perfect association.

Yet another way to measure conflict is to calculate the fraction of options that are nondominated. For an option to be nondominated, no other option can be found that is superior on every aspect or attribute (Fasolo, McClelland, & Todd, 2007). For example, in Figure 2A, only one option is nondominated, which indicates zero conflict, whereas in Figure 2B, all of the options are nondominated, indicating high conflict.

Critical evaluation of trade-off aversion as an explanation for choice overload

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Taken together, it seems plausible that conflict and trade-offs between options are a necessary precondition for the too-much-choice effect. Yet this is not to say that the number of trade-offs necessarily increases with the number of options. For example, if dominated options are added that are worse than at least one other option in every attribute, the number of trade-offs will not change because the dominated alternative need not be considered anyhow. Likewise, if a dominant option is added that is better than all the other options in every attribute, no trade-offs have to be made when choosing the dominant option. Furthermore, even if conflict leads to deferral and avoidance of choice, it does not follow that more conflict leads to more deferral and avoidance of choice, yet this would be necessary for the too-much-choice effect to occur.

To test if the number of conflicts matters, Dhar (1997) conducted two experiments in which he manipulated the number of conflicting attributes between two consumer products. What he found was that choice deferral did not increase with the number of trade-offs and that having to make a single attribute trade-off is already sufficient to decrease the motivation to choose. While these results question the idea that an increase in the number of trade-offs can account for the too-much-choice effect, one study might not be enough to draw a firm conclusion. Also, it is likely that it is not the number of trade-offs per se that matters but also the magnitude of the difference and the importance of the conflicting attributes, making it difficult to draw any final conclusions.

Difficulty discriminating between options

Another explanation of the too-much-choice effect by Iyengar and Jiang (2004) is based on the notion that options get more similar with an increase in assortment size, which makes it harder to distinguish between them. Because of this, the authors argue that the “fear of not being able to choose optimally” (p. 4) will increase. While not explicitly stated, this explanation seems to imply that decision makers seek to identify the optimal option according to some predefined standard. As I will outline in more detail below, the idea that people strive to find the optimum is at odds with several psychological concepts that are empirically and theoretically well established, including Simon’s (1955) notion of “satisficing”, the concept of adaptive decision making (Payne et al., 1992), and the framework of fast and frugal heuristics (Gigerenzer, Todd, & the ABC Research Group, 1999). In short, all three concepts suggest that decision makers adapt to changes in the environment by making use of fast and frugal heuristics. As a consequence, they are expected to remain fully capable of acting under a wide range of different situations, including an increase in the number of options to choose from.

Failure to adapt the decision strategy

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Botti and Iyengar argued that in contrast to the idea that decision strategies are adapted to the environment in which they are applied, simple heuristics “may incorrectly eliminate valuable options,” which in turn would lead to “suboptimal decisions and subsequent dissatisfying outcomes” (2006, p. 13). If so, the effect of too much choice would result from a specific interaction between the decision strategy on one side and the environmental structure, including the number of options to choose from, on the other. As mentioned above, there is a considerable body of literature that explicitly addresses this relationship.

Hence, in order to evaluate Botti and Iyengar’s claim, I will review the literature on adaptive decision making with a special emphasis on the number of options. As I will outline in more detail below, I found little empirical or conceptual evidence to support Botti and Iyengar’s claim.

Too much choice and the notion of adaptive decision heuristics

According to the notion of humans as adaptive decision makers, people in daily life are well adapted to proliferating choices. For example, Postrel (2005) suggested that abundant choice does not force us to look for the absolute best of everything but allows us to find the extremes in those things we really care about. As an example, she pointed out that even 20 years after phone deregulation, 60% of all U.S. consumers were with AT&T, the former monopolist. This inertia to change the service despite a multitude of different options could be due to the fact that most people are simply satisfied with their status quo, an instance of Herbert Simon’s idea of satisficing.

Satisficing

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The notion of satisficing (Simon, 1955, 1956) suggests that in most cases, assortment size will hardly have any effect on either satisfaction or motivation and thus no choice overload should occur because “an organism may make its choice within a set of alternatives more limited than the whole range objectively available to it” (Simon, 1955, p. 102). Satisficing, in contrast to optimizing, assumes that humans only possess limited information and limited computational facilities. Because of these constraints, optimizing is unfeasible and the rational thing to do is to find solutions that are satisfactory in that they exceed a certain aspiration level. (Simon, 1955). The aspiration level is formed based on experience of how good a solution one might reasonably achieve (Simon, 1990). Simon (1956) hypothesized that decision-making agents find these solutions by making use of cues, or “clues” as Simon (1956) called them, and other structural characteristics of the environment in which they operate. Satisficing further assumes that options are evaluated sequentially and that the first option that exceeds the aspiration threshold will be chosen. As a consequence, usually only a few options are considered before a choice is made and no trade-offs between advantages and disadvantages are made. Simon (1990) stated that “picking the first satisfactory alternative solves the problem of making a choice whenever an enormous, or even potentially infinite, number of alternatives are to be compared” (p. 9).

On the other hand, a decision maker who aims to optimize would consider as many options as possible before making a final decision. Satisficing also implies that each option is evaluated relative to some aspiration level while optimizing would require a relative comparison between the options.

According to Janis and Mann (1977), the notion of satisficing can also describe the situation in which a decision maker considers only a few, albeit important attributes. In contrast, an optimizing strategy would typically be based on a weighted additive model in which the magnitude and importance of each dimension is taken into account and possible trade-offs need to be considered.

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In line with the notion of satisficing, research on consumer behavior has found that people in shops often buy products “on impulse”: A consumer notices something she finds attractive and if its price is within a reasonable range she immediately decides to buy it (Rook, 1987). Taken together, if Simon is correct in that his theory is descriptive of human decision making, people would usually follow a satisficing strategy that should shield them from being overloaded.

Adaptive decision making

The research on adaptive decision making (Gigerenzer et al., 1999; Payne et al., 1992) also suggests that people are capable of reasonable choices even if the number of options and the amount of information gets large. As an example, one would expect that decision makers become pickier when the assortment is large and lower their expectations when choices are few. Consequently, the probability of making a choice would remain constant and no too-much-choice effect would be found with respect to choice.

From this perspective, the empirical findings of choice overload could be interpreted as a failure to adapt the decision strategy to the current situation. If people do not have a strategy to handle the situation they face, deferring the choice might be more likely. In extension to this, if human decision makers have (evolved or learned) heuristics available that protect them from experiencing choice overload for common everyday assortment sizes, it might be a necessary precondition for the too-much-choice effect that, unlike the definition of Iyengar and Lepper (2000), the assortment exceeds ecologically usual sizes so that people face situations in which they cannot make use of their evolved simple heuristics. Such an interpretation would also be in line with Simon, who conjectured that “conflict of choice may often be equivalent to an absence of a choice mechanism in the given situation” (1956, p. 137) but that the organism seldom encounters such situations in its natural environment (see also Gigerenzer et al., 1999).

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It should be noted here that this latter explanation of too much choice is essentially different from Botti and Iyengar’s hypothesis above. While according to Botti and Iyengar the effect occurs due to the utilization of a simple heuristic, from the perspective of humans as adaptive decision makers, the effect would occur due to a lack thereof.

Further empirical evidence on the too-much-choice effect

In line with the notion of humans as adaptive decision makers, there are a few studies that did not find any effect of the number of options on either satisfaction or the motivation to make a choice. Given that finding no effect on the number of options is commonly not regarded as a very surprising result, the data outlined below is often hidden behind other findings and main effects.

Lenton, Fasolo, and Todd, 2005

Lenton et al. (2005) did not find any difference between choosing from a small assortment and choosing from a large assortment with regard to the difficulty of choosing, the satisfaction with the chosen option, and the experience of post-choice regret. In their experiment, students were asked to browse through a mock dating website that consisted of either 4 or 20 profiles in a between-subjects design. After looking at all the profiles, participants were asked to select the mate they preferred most. Their results are in line with the idea that participants had a strategy available that shielded them from being overloaded with too many options. However, in their study the authors did not explicitly test the use of strategies.

Mogilner, Rudnick, and Iyengar, 2006

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Likewise, for people choosing among different numbers of printed magazines in a supermarket, Mogilner et al. (2006, Study 1) did not find any effect of actual (vs. perceived) assortment size on satisfaction with the shopping experience. In their study, they administered questionnaires to regular customers at different branches of a high-end supermarket chain that offered various numbers of magazines. At each store, consumers rated how satisfied they were while shopping for a magazine and they also rated the amount of choice they subjectively perceived. What they found was that the perceived amount of choice was a good predictor of choice satisfaction, such that more perceived choice led to more satisfaction while the actual number of magazines offered by the store did not affect consumers’ satisfaction. It should be noted, however, that the number of magazines was not experimentally controlled but pre-determined by the store management. While this makes it more ecologically valid, the study follows a correlational design that does not allow for any causal interpretations.

In a more controlled experimental design (Mogilner et al., 2006, Study 3), the researchers still did not find an effect of the number of options on satisfaction with the chosen options. Participants in this experiment chose a cup of coffee from one of two menus in a between-subjects design. One menu listed 5 different coffee flavors while the other listed 50 different flavors. After their choice, participants received a cup of coffee and subsequently rated the taste of the coffee and their satisfaction with their choice. In this experiment, people were deceived into believing that they received the flavor of their choice, whereas in fact everyone got the same type of coffee. Besides the fact that the authors do not disclose if they informed participants about the deception at the end of the experiment, scholars have argued that deception might actually impair internal and external experimental validity (Ortmann & Hertwig, 2002).

Despite these methodological concerns and the lack of a main effect, Mogilner et al. (2006) did find an effect of too much choice in parts of their sample data: For people who described themselves as having relatively little knowledge about coffee, the satisfaction with a choice from the small assortment was slightly higher compared to a choice from the large assortment. On the other hand, people who were relatively knowledgeable and usually drank a lot of coffee were largely unaffected by the number of options. This finding is in line with the findings outlined above saying that a lack of prior preferences is a necessary precondition for the effect to occur. Notwithstanding the results, it seems surprising that alleged coffee experts did not recognize that they got served a different coffee than the one they chose. Yet, the study outlined next indicates that even for a task that people usually do not face every day and for which they might not have specific expertise, the effect of too much choice is not always found.

Haynes and Olson, 2007

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Participants in a study by Haynes and Olson (2007, Study 1) were asked to imagine that they won a lottery and that they could choose among different prizes. The number of prizes to choose from was subject to experimental manipulation. What they found was that participants who chose from 10 options found the task more enjoyable but also more difficult and more frustrating than participants who chose from 3 options. There was also a small effect of assortment size on satisfaction with the finally chosen hypothetical option (Cohen’s d = 0.44). However, in a follow-up study with a small assortment of 5 options and a large assortment of 20 options (Haynes & Olson, 2007, Study 2), the effect of assortment size on satisfaction disappeared (Cohen’s d = −0.2). While it is not clear what caused these differences in the results, it can at least be concluded that even though participants faced a decision that was rather exotic, the effect was not always found.

Theoretical implications of the too-much-choice effect

From a theoretical point of view, a possible effect of choice overload is important for our understanding of human rationality and the concept of liberty as the freedom of choice.

Violation of regularity

The too-much-choice effect challenges the assumptions of rational choice theory (Savage, 1954) in that it violates regularity. The regularity axiom does not claim that large assortments are necessarily better than small ones but dictates that increasing variety should never lead to less choice. More precisely, it states that the preference for (and hence potential choice share of) a given product cannot be increased by including an alternative product in the choice set. Expressed formally, let p(z│{z,x}) be the probability of choosing option z from the set {z,x} and let p(z│{z,x,y}) be the probability of choosing option z from the set {z,y,x}. According to regularity, p(z│{z,x,y}) cannot exceed p(z│{z,x}). The violation becomes obvious if z represents “choose nothing” and y represents a large number of alternative options: The probability of choosing nothing if presented with many options, p(z│{z,x,y}), cannot, according to regularity, be greater than the probability of choosing nothing rather than x alone, p(z│{z,x})—and yet the too-much-choice effect says sometimes it is.

Cognitive models of choice

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The effect of too much choice challenges many cognitive models of preferential choice for at least two reasons: First, most of the models assume that one option will eventually be chosen. For these models, predicting “no-choice” would require specifying the no-choice option as one explicit alternative among many. For example, to incorporate no-choice into a weighted additive model, one would need to know precise attribute values for the no-choice option, which in most cases seems unfeasible. Process models of preferential choice, such as the elimination-by-aspects model (Tversky, 1972), that, similar to the notion of satisficing outlined above, assume a step-wise information search in which options are sequentially screened and subsequently eliminated if they do not exceed certain thresholds can predict no-choice for cases in which none of the options meets the necessary criteria. Yet for the latter class of models, the probability that all necessary criteria are met will usually increases with the number of options. I will come back to the relationship between choice models and too much choice in further detail in the General Discussion in Chapter V.

Violation of Pareto efficiency

By adding options, for instance, by widening the range of consumer products within a certain category, it can be expected that some people will eventually be better off because their preferences can be satisfied to a higher degree. If at the same time, no one is worse off, Schwartz (2007) laid out that a larger assortment of options is Pareto efficient. The too-much-choice effect challenges the Pareto efficiency of large assortments because it predicts a decrease in the motivation to choose and thus makes some people worse off when the number of options increases.

Finally, insofar as individual freedom is defined as the ability to choose unconstrained by external or internal forces, adding options should remove constraints and thus increase freedom. But because it leads to decreased choice motivation and satisfaction, the too-much-choice effect suggests an antagonism between amount of choice and its constraining influences that reaches into philosophical debates on the understanding of freedom.

Too much choice and freedom of choice

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It is commonly agreed that humans have a desire for personal control and self-determination. At least in the United States, “free choice” ranks among the highest values (Rokeach & Ball-Rokeach, 1989; Schwartz, Markus, & Snibbe, 2006). In order for a choice to be free, it is a necessary condition that a person could have done otherwise. As a consequence, having more than one alternative is required for a free choice. This is not to say that having more alternatives would further increase individual freedom. Yet this latter proposition could be deduced from the writings of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1969), according to whom freedom derives from the wish to be self-directed, such that decisions depend on oneself rather than on external forces of whatever kind. From this perspective, having many options to choose from could be seen as an increase in individual freedom because the more options there are, the fewer external forces one has to deal with. Accordingly, some philosophers explicitly conflate the number of options to choose from on one hand and individual freedom on the other (Steiner, 1975, cited in Dowding, 1992). Yet according to the effect of too much choice, having too many options decreases the motivation to choose and thus eventually constrains people’s ability to make a decision. From this perspective, a further increase in the number of options would decrease individual freedom, calling into question the concept of individual freedom outlined above.

The coalescence of freedom and choice has been questioned by other philosophers who argue that the range of physical possibilities from which a person can choose at a given moment has no direct relevance to freedom (Hayek, 1960). As an example, Hayek described a rock climber who sees only one way out to save his life and thus is unquestionably free even though he has hardly any choice. Likewise, Milton Friedman (1990) described a situation in which an armed robber offers a victim the choice between money and life as an example of a situation in which people are not free despite multiple options to choose from. Dowding concluded that it is not the number of options per se that increases a person’s freedom. Rather, it is getting what one wants. From this perspective, a mere increase in the number of options does not increase freedom in the first place, and as a consequence, any opposition between freedom and choice overload would be dissolved.

Alternative views on the concept of freedom

Schwartz (2000) conceptualized freedom of choice as a two-edged sword with liberation on one side and chaos on the other. In Schwartz’s terms, freedom is chaos when it is unconstrained, resulting in tyranny and anxiety.

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Building on this dichotomy, Schwartz et al., (2006) reported evidence that especially students from working-class families associated the word “choice” with the concepts of “fear,” “doubt,” and “difficulty,” while students whose parents had a college degree were more likely to associate “choice” with “freedom,” “action,” and “control.” In another series of studies, Schwartz et al. (2006) reported evidence that middle-class Americans were more satisfied with a pen or a music CD if they chose it themselves than if someone else chose it for them. For working-class Americans, satisfaction was independent of who made the choice. Schwartz et al. argued that these data reflect divergent conceptions of freedom, such that for the middle-class Americans, freedom was the freedom to make a free choice, whereas for the working-class Americans, it was the freedom from having to make a choice. From this perspective, not to make a choice when facing many options would be a liberating act itself, as it frees a person from making a decision. In the long run, it is questionable, though, how much freedom from choosing will be appreciated. At least it is hard to imagine that a person who is patronized such that all choices are made on his behalf would actually feel free.

Practical and applied implications

In addition to examining its theoretical implications, exploring the extent of the too-much-choice effect is important because of its practical implications for public policy making and related fields. Free choice is one of the hallmarks of free market economies. For example, since the 1990s, the World Bank (1994) has advocated a libertarian policy in which government-provided age pensions are supplemented by private retirement savings to face the challenges of an aging population. In countries that changed their retirement system accordingly, including Germany, Australia, and Sweden, to name only a few, people can choose from a plenitude of financial products (Gallery & Gallery, 2005; Hedesström, Svedsäter, & Gärling, 2007). Likewise, as governments turn to privatization and liberalism, a similar development holds true for health insurance and utilities such as electricity and gas. While the rationale of these measures is to increase competition and participation, the effect of too much choice suggests that an overabundance of alternatives will lead to the opposite effect.

As mentioned above, the results of Huberman et al. (2007) suggest that too many investment options to choose from in a 401(k) plan might decrease participation in these programs, which in turn would lead to a decrease in the quality of life after retirement. Also, many important decisions are made in interaction with an expert who controls the number of options being offered. In these situations, a better understanding of the too-much-choice effect will help the expert—be it a doctor presenting different medical treatments or a used-car dealer who wants to increase sales—guide people to making better decisions.

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The question of whether limiting choice can increase social welfare was also raised by Hanoch and Rice (2006). They hypothesized that especially for elderly citizens in the United States, where health insurance is somewhat discretionary, an increase in the number of health plans leads to a lower participation rate and/or insufficient coverage. Hanoch and Rice further conjectured that the recent attempts of public policy makers to increase participation of the elderly in prescription drug discount plans (an insurance that partly covers the costs of prescribed drugs) mainly failed because the number of available plans might have been too high and therefore too confusing. To overcome these problems to the authors suggested following the advice of Sunstein and Thaler (2003), who raised the possibility of “libertarian paternalism.” Often seen as an oxymoron, libertarian paternalists, according to Sunstein and Thaler, should attempt to steer people’s choice in welfare-promoting directions while also respecting their freedom of choice. Among other measures, they suggest that one way to do this would be to restrict the choice being offered. Yet as pointed out by Berg and Gigerenzer (2007), links between psychological theories and arguments concerning paternalism (including libertarian paternalism) rest on a selective account of the psychological literature and rely on a definition of rationality that most likely is too narrow.

In extension to the debate on public policy making, other social scientists recently connected the increase in choices within modern market democracies directly to a decrease in well being. In his book on the loss of happiness in market democracies (which is dedicated to all unhappy people, wherever they may be), the political scientist Robert Lane (2000) regards the overabundance of options in consumer markets as one reason for the decline in mean happiness in the United States. According to Lane, “choices proliferate beyond our pleasure in choosing and our capacity to handle the choices” (p. 181). It should be noted, however, that this reasoning is somewhat reminiscent of the line of argumentation by Lipowski (1970), outlined above, and from the perspective of choice proponents such as Anderson (2006) or Postrel (2005), it might be interpreted as a post-hoc rationalization of a general scepticism toward societal trends of modernization and diversification.

General Discussion

The effect of too much choice challenges many theoretical models of choice and has important practical and theoretical implications. At the same time, there is an apparent lack of compelling theory and no model that explains when and why the effect will occur. Therefore, in the following chapter, I will argue that a more precise theoretical model is needed that predicts when and why the effect of too much choice will occur. Furthermore, the mixed empirical evidence for and against the too-much-choice effect means that a replication of the effect is required as a basis for theory building.


Fußnoten und Endnoten

1  Perhaps tellingly, in 2007 Marcy’s is still prospering while Korvette went out of business in 1980.



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