Paralyzed By Possibilities: How Choice Overload Makes Decisions Harder

SMS Text
Paralyzed By Possibilities: How Choice Overload Makes Decisions Harder

It’s a scenario that plays out thousands of times every day. Traffic jams form in supermarket aisles as shoppers stare at dozens of varieties of salad dressing, yogurt, and pasta sauce, then leave with the same brand they bought last week.

Buyers in the market for a new car feel their brains glaze over at the range of makes, models, and options — then decide the old beater is good enough for right now. We can have anything we want, customized down to the smallest detail, yet people continue to pick the same product or go home without buying anything at all.

Why does this happen?

The condition is called choice overload. It is exhausting your customers and hurting your company’s bottom line.

When More Choice Equals Less Choosing

Sheena Iyengar found supermarket customers were more likely to try a sample when offered a large array of jams — but more likely to actually buy a jar when offered a sample from only six varieties. The same thing happens when employees are offered a wide range of investment choices for their 401(k) plans. People simply put off making the decision or refuse to decide altogether.

There are two major factors at play in choice overload. The first is emotional satisfaction. When faced with a limited selection, people generally pick the one that is closest to what they want. If it isn’t perfect, well, that’s because the selection was limited. When confronted with a large selection, the dynamic shifts.

Now it’s possible to get the perfect item. If the choice isn’t perfect, the blame is on the person making the decision. If you don’t like what you ordered for dessert, it’s your fault.

The second factor is complexity. It is relatively easy to compare two or three items that are very different. Once the selection size increase, the difference between items decreases. Now you have to choose between French vanilla, all-natural or vanilla bean. The importance of the decision is magnified, because you can do so much better than simply good enough.

Each decision must be weighed carefully. This takes time. More importantly, it takes energy.

The result is what Barry Schwartz calls “the paradox of choice,” a condition where more opportunity creates less satisfaction due to the perceived cost of making a decision. That’s what happens when you spend more time ordering your dinner than you do enjoying it.

Choice Overload

Choice and the Web

When a customer turns to the internet to find products or services, the situation can become even more overwhelming. Search engine algorithms are designed to present the most “relevant” query results, but even this can be difficult to work with.

This is why Google only shows a limited number of organic results per page, and only three local search results.

Local business owners know the importance of being at the top of the SERPs and of securing one of those three precious local results spots. It’s equally important not to squander the advantage they give. Once a customer reaches your website, it is vital to provide a clear path through your conversion funnel. The proper use of default offerings can turn a stressful search into a pleasant buying experience — one where decisions can be made painlessly, with as few clicks as possible.

Doing this can be as simple as presenting the proper elements in the proper order. Dan Ariely has shown that people often choose default options even when they might have made different decisions under other circumstances.

Significantly, Ariely points out that when presented with Option A and Option B, people were equally likely to choose either one. When Option C, similar to Option A but not as good, was introduced, Option A became the clear favorite. Option C’s inferiority gave an additional nudge toward Option A.

Decision Fatigue

How to Fight Decision Fatigue

With simple online searches producing billions of results and businesses struggling to offer consumers nearly infinite choices, decision fatigue is inevitable. This combination of physical and mental exhaustion makes it difficult to evaluate options objectively. How can the average person avoid being worn down by choice overload?

Sheena Iyengar’s research gives some interesting clues. Customers choosing options for luxury cars were asked to make decisions about paint color, gear shifts, and other options. Some elements only had a few options; others, such a color, had dozens of possibilities.

Those who were directed to choose a color first were more likely to go with the default selection for other parts of the car. Those who made the simplest choice first were able to continue making decisions throughout the process without relying on the default.

What this means is that people can learn to be comfortable with complex choices. An e-commerce site that uses a simple-to-complex decision path helps customers to remain engaged and get the best result. When humans learn to move from simple decisions to complex ones, other choices in life can become easier.

Learning to Be “Satisficed”

Behavioral economists have a term for always seeking the best choice from all available options: maximizing. They have an equally important term that can help reduce choice overload and decision fatigue: satisficing.

Satisfice is a combination of “satisfy” and “suffice.” It means to focus on finding the choice that is good enough to work. This isn’t about settling. It’s about prioritizing action over perfection. Instead of trying to compare every detail of every item, the person making the decision assumes that the choice may not be perfect — and that’s okay.

Once you decide to be satisfied, you can move on to actually eating your salad or driving your new car. There is no need to compare your actual choice with all the other options to see what you did wrong. Decision-making becomes easier, quicker and less stressful.

The secret lesson is your customers want the best, but they won’t be happy if they spend too much time looking for perfection. What you really need to do is keep them satisfied.


Image Credits

Featured Image: Lisa S./
In-post Photo: Stockcreations/
In-post Photo: g-stockstudio/

Jonathan Adkins

Jonathan Adkins

Global SEO Manager at Intercontinental Hotels Group
Jonathan is a leading multi-channel marketing professional that develops eCommerce strategies and drives digital innovation. He is currently the global SEO manager for Intercontinental Hotels... Read Full Bio
Jonathan Adkins
Jonathan Adkins

Latest posts by Jonathan Adkins (see all)

Subscribe to SEJ!
Get our weekly newsletter from SEJ's Founder Loren Baker about the latest news in the industry!
  • R.Rogerson

    Restriction and Presentation of choices is a fairly well covered area of Sales Psychology (behaviour and cognitive).

    There are so many different parts to this, it’s hard to know where to start…

    Perceived Value : The amount of investment the chooser is to make is an important influence. The more value, the more choices you can present.

    Perceived Risk : The amount of potential damage a wrong decision can cause is also a factor. The greater the potential loss, the harder the choice. Distinct options are preferred (not necessarily fewer, just clearer).

    Perceived Cost : Time is important to us. The more time I have to spend on something, the more it is costing me. That cost has to be worth it, so choosers are less likely to spend time on lower-value items.

    Presentation of Choices : how you present the choices is important. This includes grouping choices and presenting them in stages, providing lower-risk items first, reaching the point of committal (they’ve spent 5 minutes on it so far, 1 more minute is acceptable, 5 more is not), easing choices, prompting choices etc.
    Fewer choices at a time make it less intimidating (esp. important with higher-risk). Breaking it down into little chunks/stages/pages can help make the whole process appear smaller than it really is, without swamping the chooser.
    Lower Risk first enables you to lead the chooser in with less chance of abandonment or panic. It also increases the committal mentality.
    Committal is how much time/effort the chooser is willing to invest in the choice process, and how far into it they are. It’s important that they can see an “end” to the process, and that it’s not far away … just a few more simple choices….
    Leading Choices – most people will opt for a Middle of the Road option if available. So you can introduce an “odd” number of choices and the chances are people will pick the middle (or one of the middle) choice(s).
    Easing choices is making the whole thing easier – most will opt for a middle of the road choice, so if you have an even number of choices, create a 3rd one (either excessive or inferior) and add it to the options.
    Prompting choices is helping them make a decision – such as having an option that is clearly better value, or provides more of what they want. Highlighting this is also fairly standard (recommended, best fit, editors pick etc.).

    Then of course you have Value Props, CTAs, visual presentation, pricing, added value, offers/discounts/incentives ….

    There, a view into some of the things Sales Psychology covers.Try walking around your local supermarket and notice how the shelves are organised, the pricing, the product order and the quantity of each variant … you’ll see the above. No different than car show rooms – notice the number of each type of car, and look at the price tags and models … see which ones are likely to be sold the most 😀

  • Yesh

    I’m an economist but this is the first time I’ve heard of “satisficed”. I do know about maximization – it’s how we all behave, really. Great addition to my vocabulary and even though I don’t run an e-commerce website, this still proves to be a valuable insight in offering various services, both online and offline.