What Good Marketers Know About Choice, Part I

When faced with the challenge of deciding on what choices to offer customers, inexperienced marketers usually take a “more is better” approach. If, for example, they are selling a subscription to a newsletter, they might offer 3-month, 6-month, and 1-year options . . . and, while they’re at it, throw in 2 years and maybe 3 years too. It just “makes sense,” they figure, that the more choices they provide, the more appealing it will be for the customer.

Right? Wrong! “It is only logical to think that if some choice is good, more is better,” says Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, writing in the April 2004 issue of Scientific American (www.sciam.com). “Yet recent research strongly suggests that, psychologically, this assumption is wrong. Although some choice is undoubtedly better than none, more is not always better than less.” Interesting, isn’t it?

And this conclusion is mirrored in many other studies.  According to research done by David G. Myers of Hope College and Robert E Lane of Yale University, increased choice brought on by affluence makes people less happy. “As gross domestic product (in the USA) more than doubled in the past 30 years,” Scientific American observed, “the proportion of the population describing itself as “very happy” declined by about 5%, or by some 14 million people.”

No one believes that increased choice is the only reason for this surprising (to some) fact, but the study indicates that it’s a major factor. Schwartz and his colleagues have tried to determine “why many people end up unhappy rather than pleased when their options expand.” They began by making a distinction between “maximizers” (people who always aim to make the best possible choice) and “satisficers” (people who aim for “good enough,” whether or not better selections might be available).

They then put together a test that allowed people to rate themselves (on a scale of 1 to 7) in terms of how aggressively they try to maximize their choices and also how happy they feel about their decisions. What they found was that for a satisficer, a wealth of choices is not a problem, since, for them, the task is to simply find one that works. But for maximizers, “the more options there are, the more overwhelming it is.”

Maximizers spend more time and effort pursuing goals and arriving at decisions. Because they work so hard at it, they usually make better choices than their satisficer counterparts — however, they are less satisfied with them because they tend to second-guess their decisions. “We found . . . that the greatest maximizers were the least happy with the fruits of their efforts,” Schwartz reported. “They get little pleasure from finding out that they did better and substantial dissatisfaction from finding out they did worse.

They are more prone to experiencing regret after a purchase, and if their acquisition disappoints them, their sense of well-being takes longer to recover. They also tend to brood or ruminate more than satisficers do.” Does it follow that maximizers are less happy in general? Yes. “Individuals with high maximization scores experienced less satisfaction with life and were less happy, less optimistic, and more depressed than people with low maximization scores,” Schwartz found.

“Indeed, those with extreme maximization ratings had depression scores that placed them in the borderline clinical range.” We’ll talk more about the way people react to choice tomorrow. I’ll tell you how the best marketers determine the optimal number of options to give customers — and how you as an individual can deal with life’s overwhelming number of choices.

(Ed Note: Advertising “is not about building better mousetraps. It is, however, about building larger mice—and then building a terrifying fear of them in your customers.” To learn more please click here).