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The Limits of Freedom: Why We Want "More," But We Need Less
More choices equal more freedom, right? On the whole, we think that if we have more options before us, we can make a superior decision.
Turns out, the opposite may be true. The fewer options, the stronger our decisions.
This is part of what psychologist Barry Schwartz called “the paradox of choice.”
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The Fruit Jam Experiment
In 2000, the psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper performed a study in a grocery store in California.
They ran a tasting booth on two separate days. On the first testing day, 24 exotic jams (the extensive-choice display) were displayed and customers could taste as many as they wanted. Of the 242 customers who walked by, 145 (60%) sampled from the display.
On the second day of testing, only 6 jams (the limited-choice display) were set out. Of the 260 customers who walked by, 104 (only 40%) sampled the jams.
The larger selection attracted a greater percentage of customers (60% vs 40%).
Here’s the first crazy part of the experiment.
It didn’t matter if there were 24 choices or 6 choices, the customers sampled the same number of jams! From the extensive-choice display, customers chose an average of 1.50 jams. From the limited choice display, customers chose 1.38 jams. Practically no difference at all!
The Craziest Part
Every customer who tasted the jams from either display was given a coupon for $1-off a purchase of the jams. Of the customers who tasted from the 6-jam display, 30% went on to actually buy a jam. Of the customers who tasted from the 24-jam display, only 3% went on to buy a jam!
The customers exposed to limited choices were more likely to purchase a product than the customers exposed to more choices!
The researchers believed that even though the larger choice selection appealed to more customers, the larger selection also reduced any motivation to make an actual purchase.
“Too much” choice hampered their motivation to choose.
The “Opportunity Cost”
Iynegar and Lepper’s research paper is actually a series of tests – more than just jams – in a study entitled “When Choice Is Demotivating.”
The experiments all seem to point to the conclusion that the limited-choice seems to motivate and connect to people more than the extensive-choice.
This seems related to what economists call “opportunity cost” – whereby making a decision to choose one means to sacrifice the others. For example, if you have six choices of an insurance plan, to choose one plan is to forego the other five.
Therefore, the greater the number of choices, the more “cost” that is involved. The greater the number of choices, the more exhausting the decision.
Practical applications of this research might involve limiting the number of choices on a restaurant’s menu. In fact, this is frequently what Gordon Ramsay does on his show Kitchen Nightmares. It might help to limit the number of Medicare plans or prescriptions available to seniors. It might help to limit the number of subjects children must study in the same semester.
Choice is the practical application of freedom in our daily lives. When critical choices are taken from us, this is the definition of tyranny. But humans are not infinite. There might be only a small number of choices we are capable of processing at any one time. Otherwise, as the proverb goes, “our eyes become bigger than our stomachs.”
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Iyenar, S. and M. Lepper. “When Choice Is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2000, 79, 995-1006.
Schwartz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice. HarperCollins, 2004.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.