The Paradox of Choice

At the UI11 Conference I attended last week, one of the keynote presentations was made by Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. Though he believes choice to be a good thing, his presentation focused more on the negative aspects of offering too many choices. He walks through a number of examples that illustrate the problems with our “official syllogism” which is:

  • More freedom means more welfare
  • More choice means more freedom
  • Therefore, more choice means more welfare

In the United States, we have operated as if this syllogism is unambigiously true, and as a result, we’re deluged with choices. Just take a look at a relatively small supermarket: there are 285 cookies, 75 iced teas, 275 cereals, 40 toothpastes, 230 soups, and 175 salad dressings (not including 12 extra virgin olive oils and 18 vinegars which could be combined to make hundreds of vinaigrettes) to choose from (and this was supposedly a smaller supermarket). At your typical Circuit City, the sheer breadth of stereo components allows you to create any one of 6.5 million possible stereo systems. And this applies all throughout our lives, extending even to working, marriage, and whether or not to have children. In the past, these things weren’t much of a question. Today, everything is a choice. [thanks to Jesper R´┐Żnn-Jensen for his notes on Schwartz’s talk – it’s even got pictures!]

So how do we react to all these choices? Luke Wroblewski provides an excellent summary, which I will partly steal (because, hey, he’s stealing from Schwartz after all):

  • Paralysis: When faced with so many choices, people are often overwhelmed and put off the decision. I often find myself in such a situation: Oh, I don’t have time to evaluate all of these options, I’ll just do it tomorrow. But, of course, tomorrow is usually not so different than today, so you see a lot of procrastination.
  • Decision Quality: Of course, you can’t procrastinate forever, so when forced to make a decision, people will often use simple heuristics to evaluate the field of options. In retail, this often boils down to evaluation based mostly on Brand and Price. I also read a recent paper on feature fatigue (full article not available, but the abstract is there) that fits nicely here.

    In fields where there are many competing products, you see a lot of feature bloat. Loading a product with all sorts of bells and whistles will differentiate that product and often increase initial sales. However, all of these additional capabilities come at the expense of usability. What’s more, even when people know this, they still choose high-feature models. The only thing that really helps is when someone actually uses a product for a certain amount of time, at which point they realize that they either don’t use the extra features or that the tradeoffs in terms of usability make the additional capabilities considerably less attractive. Part of the problem is perhaps that usability is an intangible and somewhat subjective attribute of a product. Intellectually, everyone knows that it is important, but when it comes down to decision-time, most people base their decisions on something that is more easily measured, like number of features, brand, or price. This is also part of why focus groups are so bad at measuring usability. I’ve been to a number of focus groups that start with a series of exercises in front of a computer, then end with a roundtable discussion about their experiences. Usually, the discussion was completely at odds with what the people actually did when in front of the computer. Watch what they do, not what they say…

  • Decision Satisfaction: When presented with a lot of choices, people may actually do better for themselves, yet they often feel worse due to regret or anticipated regret. Because people resort to simplifying their decision making process, and because they know they’re simplifying, they might also wonder if one or more of the options they cut was actually better than what they chose. A little while ago, I bought a new cell phone. I actually did a fair amount of work evaluating the options, and I ended up going with a low-end no-frills phone… and instantly regretted it. Of course, the phone itself wasn’t that bad (and for all I know, it was better than the other phones I passesd over), but I regret dismissing some of the other options, such as the camera (how many times over the past two years have I wanted to take a picture and thought Hey, if I had a camera on my phone I could have taken that picture!)
  • Escalation of expectations: When we have so many choices and we do so much work evaluating all the options, we begin to expect more. When things were worse (i.e. when there were less choices), it was much easier to exceed expectations. In the cell phone example above, part of the regret was no doubt fueled by the fact that I spent a lot of time figuring out which phone to get.
  • Maximizer Impact: There are some people who always want to have the best, and the problems inherent in too many choices hit these people the hardest.
  • Leakage: The conditions present when you’re making a decision exert influence long after the decision has actually been made, contributing to the dissatisfaction (i.e. regret, anticipated regret) and escalation of expectations outlined above.

As I was watching this presentation, I couldn’t help but think of various examples in my own life that illustrated some of the issues. There was the cell phone choice which turned out badly, but I also thought about things I had chosen that had come out well. For example, about a year ago, I bought an iPod, and I’ve been extremely happy with it (even though it’s not perfect), despite the fact that there were many options which I considered. Why didn’t the process of evaluating all the options evoke a feeling of regret? Because my initial impulse was to purchase the iPod, and I looked at the other options simply out of curiosity. I also had the opportunity to try out some of the players, and that experience helped enormously. And finally, the one feature that had given me pause was video (which wasn’t available on the iPod when I started looking around). The Cowon iAudio X5 was giving me pause because it had video capabilities and the iPod at the time didn’t. As it turned out, about a week later the Video iPod was released and made my decision very easy. I got that and haven’t looked back since. The funny thing is that since I’ve gotten that iPod, I haven’t used the video feature for anything useful. Not even once.

Another example is my old PC which has recently kicked the bucket. I actually assembled that PC from a bunch of parts, rather than going through a mainstream company like Dell, and the number of components available would probably make the Circuit City stereo example I gave earlier look tiny by comparison. Interestingly, this diversity of choices for PCs is often credited as part of the reason PCs overtook Macs:

Back in the early days of Macintoshes, Apple engineers would reportedly get into arguments with Steve Jobs about creating ports to allow people to add RAM to their Macs. The engineers thought it would be a good idea; Jobs said no, because he didn’t want anyone opening up a Mac. He’d rather they just throw out their Mac when they needed new RAM, and buy a new one.

Of course, we know who won this battle. The “Wintel” PC won: The computer that let anyone throw in a new component, new RAM, or a new peripheral when they wanted their computer to do something new. Okay, Mac fans, I know, I know: PCs also “won” unfairly because Bill Gates abused his monopoly with Windows. Fair enough.

But the fact is, as Hill notes, PCs never aimed at being perfect, pristine boxes like Macintoshes. They settled for being “good enough” — under the assumption that it was up to the users to tweak or adjust the PC if they needed it to do something else.

But as Schwartz would note, the amount of choices in assembling your own computer can be stifling. This is why computer and software companies like Microsoft, Dell, and Apple (yes, even Apple) insist on mediating the user’s experience with their hardware by limiting access (i.e. by limiting choice). This turns out to be not so bad, because the number of things to consider really is staggering. So why was I so happy with my computer? Because I really didn’t make many of the decisions – I simply went over to Ars Technica’s System Guide and used their recommendations. When it comes time to build my next computer, what do you think I’m going to do? Indeed, Ars is currently compiling recommendations for their October system guide, due out sometime this week. My new computer will most likely be based off of their “Hot Rod” box. (Linux presents some interesting issues in this context as well, though I think I’ll save that for another post.)

So what are the lessons here? One of the big ones is to separate the analysis from the choice by getting recommendations from someone else (see the Ars Technica example above). In the market for a digital camera? Call a friend (preferably one who is into photography) and ask them what to get. Another thing that strikes me is that just knowing about this can help you overcome it to a degree. Try to keep your expectations in check, and you might open up some room for pleasant surprises (doing this is suprisingly effective with movies). If possible, try using the product first (borrow a friend’s, use a rental, etc…). Don’t try to maximize the results so much; settle for things that are good enough (this is what Schwartz calls satisficing).

Without choices, life is miserable. When options are added, welfare is increased. Choice is a good thing. But too much choice causes the curve to level out and eventually start moving in the other direction. It becomes a matter of tradeoffs. Regular readers of this blog know what’s coming: We don’t so much solve problems as we trade one set of problems for another, in the hopes that the new set of problems is more favorable than the old. So where is the sweet spot? That’s probably a topic for another post, but my initial thoughts are that it would depend heavily on what you’re doing and the context in which you’re doing it. Also, if you were to take a wider view of things, there’s something to be said for maximizing options and then narrowing the field (a la the free market). Still, the concept of choice as a double edged sword should not be all that surprising… after all, freedom isn’t easy. Just ask Spider Man.

2 thoughts on “The Paradox of Choice”

  1. Excellent article ( =

    I think it really showed me why I often have such a terrible time making even simple decisions.


    “A little while ago, I bought a new cell phone. I actually did a fair amount of work evaluating the options, and I ended up going with a low-end no-frills phone… and instantly regretted it. Of course, the phone itself wasn’t that bad (and for all I know, it was better than the other phones I passesd over), but I regret dismissing some of the other options, such as the camera (how many times over the past two years have I wanted to take a picture and thought Hey, if I had a camera on my phone I could have taken that picture!)”

    I did the exact same thing.

    I can get a new phone in January…it will be interesting to apply some of these principles to the decision process.

  2. Yeah, while I was watching the presentation, a bunch of things came into focus for me. It’s pretty neat when such things happen, and it will be interesting to see how my awareness of the phenomenon will change it in the future…

    New phone in March. Can’t wait. This phone is actually fine, but the volume isn’t loud enough (even at the highest levels) and some of the numbers fell off the keypad. Plus, no camera, which I’m finding would be incredibly convenient.

Comments are closed.