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April 19, 2010

Happier Clients Make Fewer Choices


Have you ever tried shopping for toothpaste at Target or Wal-Mart?  Once you decide on your brand of toothpaste (I've always been a Crest man), you're still faced with a dizzying array of choices.  And, if you're like me, you spend far too much time deciding upon a product and often feel dissatisfied with your ultimate choice.

Turns out we are not alone.  In her new book The Art of Choosing, business school professor Sheena Iyengar presents research that proves people's decision making skills  worsen when presented with a plethora of choices.  In other words, people decide better (and spend more) when given fewer choices.

In this Wall Street Journal article, Professors Iyengar's famous "jam experiment" is detailed:
In a Palo Alto, Calif., supermarket known for its exceptionally vast range of products, she set up two different booths offering shoppers the chance to sample various unusual preserves. One booth offered 24 different options; the other only six. You would think that, with more choices in the first booth, more shoppers who stopped there would find a flavor they liked and go on to buy a jar. But the opposite happened: People tried more samples and bought a lot more jam at the booth with six varieties.

The people who stopped at the 24-jam booth didn't say: "Please take away most of these options so I can more easily make a decision." They simply felt overwhelmed and less willing to make any choice at all. The same feeling can arise in people who are offered an array of detailed investment options or in college students who must choose four or five classes from among the hundreds listed in the course catalog. In these situations, perhaps some strategy for choice, established in advance, could help discipline the decision-making process by focusing it on a manageable set of options.

So, next time you have a client conversation, remember that you may be better off discussing a few options instead of many.  Instead of giving your clients lots of choices, curate the list down to a solid few.  You'll end up with happier, less-confused clients who will thoughtfully consider their options, instead of being overwhelmed  by them.


I can not believe it, your article solved my problem so fast

I like your general take-away message, but I have a few thoughts about the underlying study.

For instance, it is predictable that with a greater number of options, people's selections will be spread wider than the original 6 jams. And, presumably, some of the choices will be bad ones. When there are only 6 choices, the "good" choices comprise a higher percentage of all the choices, and so it is more likely that more people will be happy when presented with only 6 choices rather than 24. In analogy, if the numbers 1, 7, and 8 are considered objectively "good," then more people will be happy when rolling a 6-sided die than a 24-sided die.

And another thought. What is the connection between the frustration felt in the selection process and the happiness with the final choice? Perhaps the difficulty of sorting through 24 options casts a shadow on the final pick making that pick less enjoyable than had only 6 options been originally presented.

Barry Schwartz covered the same issues in his book, the Paradox of Choice. His TED talk can be watched here: .

I've since read somewhere that the original "choice" experiments had some methodological issues (I'm afraid I can't remember the exact article). However, from personal experience I agree that a restricted choice (from 4-7 items or less) is more productive. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that irreversible choices result in happier individuals (see Dan Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness).

Several studies by Dan Gilbert also seem to suggest that people with more choices tend to be less happy. Actually, he says that we have an innate talent for subconsciously convincing ourselves that we are happy with the current status quo. More choices, however, seem to inhibit this mechanism.

Check out his TED speech and get back to me

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