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).