Choice Paradox

By Ben Ambridge


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I’d like to talk to you today about Buridan’s ass. Now don’t worry, it’s not what it sounds like.

Buridan’s is actually a philosophical paradox named after the 14th century French philosopher Jean Buridan. Buridan said: Imagine a donkey who’s equally hungry and thirsty. So, you put him in the middle, and on his left, you put a pile of hay, and on his right – exactly the same distance away from him but on the opposite side – you put a bucket of water. What happens?

Well, at least according to Buridan, the donkey would die of both hunger and thirst, because it has no way to choose between the hay and the water. It is literally paralysed by choice.

When you hear this fable, your initial reaction is probably “come on, not even a donkey could be that stupid”. But actually, the paradox of choice is a real psychological phenomenon, and humans fall for it too.

The paradox of choice is that when you have too many options, you find it impossible to choose between them – you end up just going back and forth between all of them, weighing up the pros and cons, and never actually pick one – you just get bored and frustrated and give up.

The reason it’s a paradox is because, all things being equal, it’s natural to think that more choice is better; but actually, it’s often worse.

Professor Barry Schwartz – a Psychologist at Swarthmore College in the USA – has based his whole career on studying the paradox of choice. And in fact, he argues that a major problem with the Western World is that we just have such nearly infinite choices about where to go and what to do, that we find it very difficult to settle down and make a decision.

The paradox of choice has also been demonstrated in lots of different psychology experiments. For example, there was one experiment done at Columbia University in New York, where students were given the opportunity to buy gourmet chocolates (using the money they earned from taking part in the experiment).

When there were 6 different choices on offer, almost half of the participants bought some of the chocolates. But when there were 30 different chocolates only around 10% bought some. And in fact, too much choice was as bad as no choice. A third group was given the option of buying some chocolate, but had no choice over which they got. And again only 10% bought some.

So, in other words, offering 30 similar products to choose from is no better than offering just a SINGLE product, with no choice at all. It’s much better – 4-5 times as many sales – to offer a small number of choices.

And once you’ve narrowed it down to a small number of choices, you can use the decoy effect to nudge customers towards the choice that is best for you.

Now of course, what counts as a small versus a large number of choices depends on exactly what your site is offering, but these experiments – and other ones looking at the paradox of choice – tell you that there’s a sweet spot that you need to use your tests to try to hit.

Too little choice, and customers risk not getting what they want. Too much and they won’t be able to make a decision. In short, when it comes to choices, less is often more, so make sure your customers don’t fall prey to the paradox of choice.

Ben Ambridge
Hi, I’m Ben. I’m a Reader in Psychology at the University of Liverpool and I lead consumer psychology at Endless Gain. I’m interested in how research findings from academic psychology can be applied in our everyday lives as consumers. And, importantly how psychology plays an influential role in ecommerce. I write a weekly psychology column for The Observer, and my book Psy-Q: You Know Your IQ - Now Test Your Psychological Intelligence has been translated into 15 languages. Check out my TED talk, "Ten Myths about Psychology, Debunked".

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