Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Non Paradox of Choice

The Paradox of Choice offers a well known critique of  the assumption that more choice is better.  It argues that in fact the greater the choice the more stuck and dissatisfied we become. 

The argument rests on a number of studies, the most famous of which is set in a grocery store where customers were offered a sample of 24 different flavors of jam and then afterwards a sample of only 6 flavors of jam. With 24 flavours, more people came to the table, but only 1/10th as many actually bought jam.

This paradox seemingly shows up everywhere, from pension funds to speed dating.  And indeed I have  used the paradox of choice to help explain Career Paralysis - a situation where people hate their jobs, but get stuck when they try to think about all the alternatives.

The trouble is that as with any seemingly intuitive life rule, reality is far closer to 'it depends' than it is to the rule.

Recent research has questioned the existence of any such paradox.  A meta analysis by Scheibehenne, Greifeneder and Todd in January 2010 found the overall effect of 'choice overload' was virtually zero: "We could not explain when and why an increase in assortment size can be expected to reliably decrease satisfaction, preference strength, or the motivation to choose," the authors write.

Indeed, sometimes they found that more choices actually facilitates choice and increases satisfaction, exoecially if we have strong prior preferences or expertise.  (This is why in career decision making it's so important to enhance self understanding and build a clear set of decision criteria). 

But we should all beware of the 'big idea' book which seems to explain a general rule about human behaviour.  Beware of experts who seem to peddle easy solutions to difficult situations.

9 times out of 10 there is no general rule.  In psychology, context is everything.  

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Rob,
Another great post - I love the message that 'context is everything' and also the idea of creating a decision matrix when there are a lot of competing similar options