In his book “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell describes an experiment where a store that offered over twenty different types of jam sold significantly less jam than another store that offered only six. Gladwell’s explanation for this is that when we are presented with too many choices, we get a lot of information to process and make a “rational choice.” That makes it harder to decide and we end up putting off making a choice.
In another experiment where students are asked to rank jams, they make choices that are consistent with experts’ when they are just asked to rank. But when they are asked to rank and also explain why they ranked the jams that way, their choices are almost random.
Gladwell explains both the above results by arguing that our ability to make a choice or decision in the blink of an eye using our “adaptive unconcious” or gut feeling is hampered by providing too much information. Our conscious mind collects all the available data and starts to process it — sorting it, comparing different attributes, pros and cons — and in the process often loses essence of what is needed to make a choice. For example, it would be easier for the students to say “I ranked this as the best jam because this tasted the best,” than to provide a rational explanation taking into account the taste, the texture, the smell and many other such attributes.
When you go to the store to buy a new TV, it would be easier to decide which particular model meets your requirements if there were say five to choose from, compared to twenty. When you are shown too many choices, your attention is drawn to features that you hadn’t thought about — and probably not important to you — and you end up starting all over and trying to decide what kind of TV do you really need. Often, you get so overwhelmed that you decide to think it over and leave the store. So it would make sense for the stores to pick a few good models of TV and only display them.
But today we shop online for a lot of things that we buy. So even if all the stores’ websites offered a small number of choices, we can browse through all of them very quickly, compared to driving from store to store. This article in Science Daily titled “Consumers Stop Buying As Number Of Options Increase” talks about this very effect.
That is probably why many online stores encourage customers to write reviews. A prospective buyer has to scan a large number of choices and make a decision, but the reviews from earlier buyers are likely to eliminate some of the choices, while highlighting some others as “good buys.” To some extent, the reviews reduce the effect of overwhelming the shopper with too many choices.
But if you end up finding too many reviews to read, which ones do you consider for making your choice? 🙂