Toothpaste, Dating, and Data: The Hazards of Too Much Choice

It's an experience common to most Peace Corps volunteers upon their return to the United States. After having spent a couple of years in remote places where consumer choices were limited at best, they go into a grocery store in the U.S. to buy something and end up standing glassy-eyed in the aisles, paralyzed and overwhelmed by an overload of light and choice. Faced with a entire aisle full of toothpaste options—one whitening, one brightening, one with extra sensitivity, and one with extra fluoride and baking soda ingredients—their eyes glaze over and they stare, circuit-fried and numb, unable to choose or buy anything.

Even without the Peace Corps background, it's a consumer experience I can relate to very well. More than once I've set out on a shopping mission and realized, after trying on the 12th pair of jeans, shorts, shoes, etc. that I have lost my ability to differentiate or decide. My brain has gone into decision fatigue, and all I want to do; indeed, all I have the ability to do, is go home.

Apparently, I am not alone. In her recent book The Art of Choosing, Columbia University business professor Sheena Iyengar cites numerous research studies that indicate an inverse relationship between choice and the ability to decide. In the late 1990s, for example, she and colleagues conducted an experiment in a high-end food store in California. On different days, they set up a tasting table of jam, offering each taster a coupon for a dollar off if they bought a jar. On some days, the researchers offered only six types of jam. On others, they offered 24 different options. While the 24-jam display attracted more attention and induced more people to stop and look at the jams, (60 percent of incoming store customers stopped at the larger display, versus 40 percent at the smaller display), the actual sales generated from the displays were an order of magnitude greater at the smaller display (30 percent of those who stopped, versus 3 percent with the larger display).

Iyengar presents psychological explanations for why we glaze over at too many choices, including the fact that choice is a complex process that requires that we a) know what we want, b) understand what makes the choices different, and c) can evaluate the trade-offs involved in choice A over choice B. Processing that for six choices is possible. Doing all those mental gymnastics for 24 options is more than our brains can handle. Ergo, our tendency to revert to a glazed-eye "tilt" mode and simply walk away. In case anyone's wondering, Iyengar says the ideal number of choices most humans can process well is somewhere between five and nine. Which makes sense, since that's about the same number of items we can hold concurrently in our short-term memory.

But what really intrigues me are the implications of this process and dynamic for areas of life beyond tangible consumer products. In a recent article called "Can There Ever Be Too Many Flowers Blooming?" Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz noted that this same phenomenon can also be seen in "speed dating" experiments (where subjects are given three or five minutes to "interview" a potential date in a group setting before moving on to the next person). In one experiment, researchers found that more "matches" were made if subjects had eight potential partners to choose from than if they had 20.

That result might explain what a single, mid-40s male friend of mine says about dating in New York City. "You might be lonely in this city," he's told me, "but you rarely have to be alone if you don't want to be, because there are so many smart, attractive, single women here." After thinking about it a bit more, he added, "Of course, that might be part of why so many men struggle with committing to marriage here. No matter how terrific the woman you're with is, there are so many other attractive potential partners walking down the street, you're always wondering if you're really with the best option."

So apparently, having too many choices leaves us unable to commit to any given one—in toothpaste, romantic partners, or even 401k investment plans. (Consequently, many brokers, like optometrists, have learned to organize client choices into descending layers of preferences: Which of these three? Which of these next three? And finally, which of these next three?)

But even more disconcerting are the implications of this phenomenon for the information industry. I've already noticed it in myself, and in friends who note that they can't process all the Web sites and bloggers and cable news and opinions out there anymore. Faced with too many choices, they just stop reading, or revert to the sports page. At first, it's delightful to have all that variety. But too much information from too many sources can be like too many kinds of jam. Or, for that matter, too many threads of music. One musical voice is nice. Four allow for an even more interesting quartet. But at some point, too many voices become noise.

On one level, it makes me wonder about the whole "page view" business model, which is driving a "more is more" approach to website content and the online publication industry in general at the moment. What if readers are like the jam-display grocery store customers—drawn to look at all those pages of information options, but too overwhelmed to buy anything afterward? If they are, then perhaps page views are a counterproductive metric. It's certainly possible.

But beyond that, if we're driving readers and information consumers into "tilt" mode, what does that mean? My fear is that we may be unwittingly promoting less considered thought and more detachment on issues, just from sheer overload. Or a reversion to an over-reliance on sources that just reinforce our inherent point of view, because it's too overwhelming to sort through all the other opinions and options out there. (This last tendency has been well documented already, with regard to cable and Internet sources people turn to for their news and information.)

More importantly, if we're suffering from information overload, is there a solution? Not an easy one, certainly. But Professor Schwartz notes that a plethora of choices makes people more reliant on filters—sources or mechanisms that sift through the pile to come up with a smaller number of options for us to contemplate (like the investment brokers who offer choice sets of three). So perhaps, as happened in the early days of the cable television industry, the rush of "public access/everyone is a producer of content" model will be replaced by a number of filter-sources that offer more choice than the pre-cable networks but some level of organization and filtering of the chaos. Of course, that, too, would have its cost. Just look how many cable stations now offer the same type of reality TV shows; none of them all that worth watching.

Perhaps the best answer, at least in the short term, is for us to filter the noise ourselves—knowing our tendency to glaze over at too many opinions or choices, to choose more carefully how many sources, and what sources, we turn to in the course of a day. Read one article carefully, rather than skimming six on the same topic, or checking in with every single website we like three or six times a day. This would drive the website advertisers crazy, of course, but if we then paid more attention to the content and ads on the few pages we scanned, it could (emphasis on could) potentially drive a more effective business model. Give us six really good types of jam, rather than 24 almost indistinguishable choices, and we might actually buy something.

Worth thinking about, anyway. That is, of course, if you're not already on overload.