More on Simplicity and the Paradox of Choice

I came across an interesting blogpost today, entitled “The Paradox of Choice is Not Robust“.  To requote their quote:

Benjamin Scheibehenne, a psychologist at the University of Basel, was thinking along these lines when he decided (with Peter Todd and, later, Rainer Greifeneder) to design a range of experiments to figure out when choice demotivates, and when it does not.

But a curious thing happened almost immediately. They began by trying to replicate some classic experiments – such as the jam study, and a similar one with luxury chocolates. They couldn’t find any sign of the “choice is bad” effect. Neither the original Lepper-Iyengar experiments nor the new study appears to be at fault: the results are just different and we don’t know why.

After designing 10 different experiments in which participants were asked to make a choice, and finding very little evidence that variety caused any problems, Scheibehenne and his colleagues tried to assemble all the studies, published and unpublished, of the effect.

The average of all these studies suggests that offering lots of extra choices seems to make no important difference either way.

I’ll let that speak for itself, and will note only a few of my related blog posts from a year+ ago: Google Search Options and the Paradox of Choice and Ranked Lists and the Paradox of Choice.

4 comments to More on Simplicity and the Paradox of Choice

  • If you want to look at the details behind that article, the underlying research they are referring to appears to be this paper:

    http://www.scheibehenne.de/ScheibehenneGreifenederTodd2010.pdf

    Here is the abstract:

    The choice overload hypothesis states that an increase in the number of options
    to choose from may lead to adverse consequences such as a decrease in the
    motivation to choose or the satisfaction with the finally chosen option. A number
    of studies found strong instances of choice overload in the lab and in the field, but
    others found no such effects or found that more choices may instead facilitate
    choice and increase satisfaction. In a meta-analysis of 63 conditions from 50 published
    and unpublished experiments (N = 5,036), we found a mean effect size of
    virtually zero but considerable variance between studies. While further analyses
    indicated several potentially important preconditions for choice overload, no sufficient
    conditions could be identified. However, some idiosyncratic moderators proposed
    in single studies may still explain when and why choice overload reliably
    occurs; we review these studies and identify possible directions for future research.

  • jeremy

    Thanks Greg! It’s certainly something I continue to wonder about. I wonder, actually, if a lot of it has to do with choices that aren’t really choices.

  • I’m not sure, but, rather than it being choices that aren’t really choices, I am starting to suspect it might have more to do with preferences that are not really preferences. That is, people may be paralyzed by many choices when they have poorly formed or poorly understood preferences at the start.

    That appears to be the subject of some recent papers by Keith Chen (http://www.som.yale.edu/faculty/keith.chen/papers.htm) who was briefly mentioned in the comments of the blog article to which you linked.

    If true, that might mean that many choices works fine when people are on a mission (want something specific and can cut right to it) but is bewildering when they are exploring or browsing (don’t know what they want yet and then get confused by a long list of undifferentiated options).

  • jeremy

    Well, let me attempt to tease out some subtle distinctions. There are at least three dimensions at work here:

    (1) Does the user have an information need that is
    (a) navigational, or
    (b) informational/exploratory

    (2) Is the user’s understanding of that need
    (a) clear
    (b) poorly formed/poorly understood

    (3) Are the choices (the objects with which the user is interacting, whether physical objects or informational objects
    (a) clearly differentiated
    (b) undifferentiated

    It seems like people would have a problem when any of the following conditions are met:

    - (1b)+(3b) The user’s need is exploratory and the objects themselves are undifferentiated
    - (1a)+(2b) the user himself wants something specific, but isn’t sure what

    But as long as the objects are clearly differentiated (3a), I see no problems with the (1b)+(2b) combo, i.e. the user doesn’t know what they want, but the core of their information need is exploratory / learning oriented in nature. That’s the whole point of, say, Nick Belkin’s ASK model. We don’t always clearly know what it is we want. And rather than that paralyzing us, a good search engine should differentiate things as much as possible. Because that differentiability *is* what makes learning and exploration possible.

    But if I’m (1b)+(2b) and the results are undifferentiated (3b), then there is a problem. I.e. if the interface gives me only a one-dimensional list of results, with page after page of no end in site, it’s very difficult to differentiate one result from the next (see http://irgupf.com/2009/03/04/ranked-lists-and-the-paradox-of-choice/ ). When the user has a known item, clearly understood need, that differentiation isn’t as necessary because the answer is usually there, at the top of the list. But when the goal itself is to learn and explore, I agree with you: lack if differentiability is a problem.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that I see a difference between the user not knowing what they want, vs. the objects themselves being undifferentiated. Not knowing what you want is not paralyzing, if your information need is informational/exploratory in nature. That’s the whole reason TGIFs offers appetizer sample platters, or microbreweries offer samplers. When you want to explore and your goal is to learn, then even though you don’t know which appetizer or brew you want, you’re more than happy to try all of them. And even pay for the opportunity to do so. It’s when the objects themselves are undifferentiated, e.g. if all the appetizers tasted like chicken, or all the microbrews tasted like Rolling Rock, that an exploratory-oriented user would be frustrated. (And again, a navigational user would not be frustrated with the exact same undifferentiated set of choices, because they’re just trying to fill their belly, and any old chickenish appetizer or watery microbrew will do.)

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