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Reckoning with the paradox of choice: Why more really is less

Tuesday, 12 July 2022
Reckoning with the paradox of choice: Why more really is less

Originally released in 2004, Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice quickly became an important work in the fields of psychology and human behavior.

In short, it delves into why having more choices can often lead people to feel less fulfilled (and easily dissuaded from actually making the choice).

And, like many good things, it all starts with jeans.

After wearing a pair ‘until they’re falling apart’, the author goes to a shop to purchase a new pair, only to freeze in the headlights of multiple finishes, fits and styles. After trying nearly every pair in the store, he leaves with some well-fitting jeans — and a much larger issue on his mind. What kind of impact is overwhelming choice having in our culture?

The choices we face

Let’s be real — these days, an hours-long trip to a storefront may feel a little removed. Let’s illustrate the same issues in a setting we can all relate to: the living room.

How many times have you settled down to watch something through an on-demand service? And how many times have you spent flicking through Netflix, Amazon, Shudder, Discovery+ and more, watching snippets, trailers and clips, before feeling overwhelmed and just turning the TV off?

In the face of the widely established ‘more freedom = better’ sentiment, we all know that the opposite can often be true: choice can paralyze.

Barry Schwartz is an instrumental figure in this space, with tons of wisdom on this subject — so let’s take a look at some key themes from his in-depth, expansive book The Paradox of Choice, and how it still resonates clearly with the modern online experience.

Ever-ever-ever-expanding horizons

Day-in, day-out, we have an immense amount of choices to make – and that’s not even including time spent on the Internet. Whether it’s what to eat, what to watch, decisions around utilities, healthcare, education, even our love lives; we have choices to make everywhere.

It’s an array of choices that can feel endless, as Schwartz highlights, to the point where decisions simply cannot be made anymore. This is showcased through the studies conducted by researchers Iyengar and Lepper in 1999 entitled "When Choice Is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?".

In the most famous of these studies– and the one that demonstrates online purchase paralysis the most strongly – consumers found themselves in a jam when faced with too many choices, literally.

An upmarket food shop was set up with a sampling table for a discounted range of jams on two occasions. The first time, the table had 6 jams that could be sampled, and the second time, all 24 could be sampled. More people went to see the wider jam range, and the number of people that sampled was roughly similar between the two conditions. But when it came to purchasing time?

30% of those who visited the 6-jam sample table decided to buy.

But only 3% of those at the 24-jam sample table did the same.

Purchase. Paralysis.

But, as we’ve talked about before and as does Schwartz, 24 jam samples isn’t that imposing anymore. Instead, we’re online — ‘a store with infinite floor space’ and thousands upon thousands of choices that can, if not navigated successfully, stop customers in their tracks.

Who gets stuck most easily?

Schwartz outlines two different types of personality that very much apply to online shoppers: the maximizers and satisficers.

You know the maximizers, and may well be one yourself: the trackers and comparers, second-guessers and review-junkies. They want to ensure that, whatever they are in the market for, they get the very best that is out there for themselves and their needs.

The satisficers (first coined in the 1950s by Herbert Simon) are commonly misconstrued as people who are happy to settle for mediocrity; the kinds of consumers that might not need such a heavy steer towards a “best” option. Instead, Simon paints them as the “ultimate” maximizers — after all, they’re happy to choose a product that hits an internal benchmark. And the result of not constantly chasing perfection? A maximized shopping experience, less dawdling and better satisfaction levels.

The issue again, especially for us online shoppers, is that the greater the choice and greater the access to information, the more that maximizers are inadvertently being created. The online experience goads us towards needing to find the best, or to not bother at all.

That means more people are positioned to experience purchase paralysis on their buying journey than ever before.

The flavors of remorse and freedom

The Paradox of Choice throws up further interesting concepts from other research and thinkers that tie into purchasing confidence and what can keep shoppers from it:

Isaiah Berlin’s concept of liberty

  • Positive liberty is the concept of ‘freedom to’ - so, in terms of online purchasing, to research and choose what you want to.
  • Negative liberty is the concept of ‘freedom from’ - again, in relatable terms, the freedom from having to settle for a mediocre product or to be misled.

Differing concepts of regret

  • Anticipated regret — the regret that comes before a purchase, and often the one that leads to paralysis. The idea that you will purchase something, then realize that a better choice will shortly follow that you can’t take.
  • Post-decision regret (buyer’s remorse) — being unsatisfied with your purchase and imagining other, better options that you didn’t take.

Most relevant to online shopping is the idea of anticipated regret; that’s the one that can knock consumers off the purchase pathway before they make a single choice. We have the ‘freedom to’ make our own decisions, but that responsibility can weigh heavy on prospective customers.

But we (and Schwartz) have been doing some thinking about how to combat this.

The importance of information gathering

What have we learnt so far?

  • We face more choice than ever before
  • Research shows too much choice can paralyze
  • Our options – by moving online – have expanded infinitely
  • We’re seeing more people become maximizers than ever before and suffer for it
  • There are different approaches of regret and freedom that influence the choices that we make

Which makes information choosing such a vitally important part of any online purchasing. If we are paralyzed by choice, Schwartz argues we must turn to external resources in order to steer our choices; it doesn’t hurt to turn to help.

That’s where the ideas of The Paradox of Choice intersect with what we are doing at Trustpilot; trying to ensure that those paralyzed by online choices have a verifiable, trustworthy source of information about potential choices they have to make.

Schwartz talks about ‘choosing when to choose’. Trusted reviews and business profiles that people can rely on gives them one less choice to worry about — namely “where do I find information about this that I can trust?” Quite simply: if someone can trust a source, then it’s a massive level of uncertainty and paralysis that’s soothed.

We’ve spoken in other blogs about how the core fundamentals of our work all point to one concept: the truth. And by reading The Paradox of Choice, it seems that the issues faced by the modern consumers are not just ones of overwhelming choice, but also of the Internet being a wild west, whereby everyone is trying to influence said choices; and some, in more illicit ways than others.

As one of the book's final points wraps up, truth allows consumers to become choosers, not pickers. Choosers that evaluate their information and have time to adjust their goals, rather than pickers that are overwhelmed and simply ‘pick’ out of necessity. In the infinite aisles, it’s good to have a guiding light that you can put a little faith in.

We’ll be using the ideas of Barry Schwartz and other researchers in these areas to take a modern look at how purchase paralysis manifests – and how businesses can defeat it – in an eBook entitled ‘The antidote to purchase paralysis’ launching this summer.

We’ve used the ideas of Barry Schwartz and other researchers in these areas, and taken a modern look at how purchase paralysis manifests – and how businesses can defeat it. Interested? Let’s get stuck in.

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