Amy Rees Anderson

Too Many Choices?

Is there such a thing as too many choices?  Are too many choices a bad thing?  Are 31 flavors of ice cream better than 3?  Do you want paper, or plastic, or the green reusable shopping bag?  Do we want kiddie sized, regular sized, medium sized, or super-sized meals?  There are a million options every day of even the smallest of choices.  So how do we choose?

Researching the answer used to be helpful.  You made a few calls, talked to a few people, and you figured it out, but now it’s totally different.  We have the Internet, and even better we have Google!  It’s like having the world’s largest library at your fingertips, and now thanks to Siri you don’t even have to type your search term, you can simply hit a button and talk to the device. But, Is having access to mounds of research on the Intranet a helpful thing when it comes to making choices, or does it make the process far too difficult because it overloads us with data to sort through in our evaluation of our options to pick from?

The reason this topic is on my mind today is that my husband and I flew out to North Carolina at the end of last week in order to attend the big annual furniture market held there.  This event is the largest furniture market in the U.S. (if not the world?).   We were going there for the purpose of picking out furniture for our new home we are building.  Going into the trip I knew it would be exhausting just based on the size and scope of this expo they hold each year.  Buyers fly in from all around the world with the purpose of finding furniture to carry in their shops.  The entire city is packed with people going from showroom to showroom looking at about every brand of furniture available.  When our decorator first suggested we come I thought “fantastic, this will give me tons of selections to choose from.”  And it did. But what I didn’t realize was that while having tons of choices sounded great coming into the trip, the reality was that as more and more choices cropped up to choose from I felt more and more stressed out, more and more unsure of my decisions, and ultimately I found myself totally drained and unable to figure out what I wanted.

I had to wonder why I was feeling this way?  I had been so excited at the prospect of so many options, so why was I now feeling overwhelmed by them?  So once the trip was done I decided to research a little on the topic and I came across this article:

This is an excerpt from an article was written in 2010 by Alina Tugend in which she shared:

“There is a famous jam study (famous, at least, among those who research choice), that is often used to bolster this point. Sheena Iyengar, a professor of business at Columbia University and the author of “The Art of Choosing,” conducted the study in 1995.

In a California gourmet market, Professor Iyengar and her research assistants set up a booth of samples of Wilkin & Sons jams. Every few hours, they switched from offering a selection of 24 jams to a group of six jams. On average, customers tasted two jams, regardless of the size of the assortment, and each one received a coupon good for $1 off one Wilkin & Sons jam.

Here’s the interesting part. Sixty percent of customers were drawn to the large assortment, while only 40 percent stopped by the small one. But 30 percent of the people who had sampled from the small assortment decided to buy jam, while only 3 percent of those confronted with the two dozen jams purchased a jar.

That study “raised the hypothesis that the presence of choice might be appealing as a theory,” Professor Iyengar said last year, “but in reality, people might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating.””

Ah, ha! It wasn’t just me!!!  Others felt the same way that I was!  Others thought they wanted all the options to select from, but in the end having too many options proved to hurt the situation rather than help.  And I learned that too much research on a decision can leave you even more stressed out, and not just before you make the choice, but afterwards as well because it leaves you with that nagging feeling that perhaps you could have gotten a better deal or made a better choice then you had.

Barry Schwartz shared his thoughts on if there are a right number of options to offer people:

Barry answered, “No, there’s no right number of choices. Two different things are going on: One of them is, the greater the number of options, the more likely you are to find something that suits your desires, so that’s what’s good about it. But probably a point is reached at which additional options don’t add much. Because one of the eight is good enough. And when you add more options, you don’t produce much more additional benefit in being able to select what you want, and all of the negative effects — difficulty choosing, regret, missed opportunity — add up, and you start to pay a price. This one guy did a study with pens, where people got to choose a pen from 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, or 20, and what he found was that optimum satisfaction with the choice seemed to occur between 8 and 12.. So that’s a ballpark number for ballpoint pens, but for dishes on a restaurant menu, the number could be different.”

Barry’s suggestion for alleviating the anxiety we feel from choices is to voluntarily limit the number of items you consider. Why couldn’t I have read his article last week before I spent several days filling my head with a million options??!!??  Oh, well. Live and learn….live and learn…

Have a great day all!



  • Neal Harris says:

    I talked to Dave yesterday and he told me your were in NC. My neighbor, Mark Ross, owns Thomasville and Drexel Heritage. Let me know if you need to source anything from them.

  • Steph Featherstone says:

    I have this problem when trying to choose a movie to watch with my roommates. If we don’t already have something in mind we go through a process of elimination to help limit which movies to choose from. It makes it infinitely easier to choose when we only have 5 movies versus the 150+ choices we start out with! 🙂

    Thanks for sharing!

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