Choice Overload: When Too Many Choices Lead to No Choice

Most of us think that having more choices means more freedom, and more freedom is better.  Yet, the research on choice overload suggests that the opposite is true: when people are faced with too many choices they tend to make no choice at all. 

Multiplicity of Choices and Sales

Sheena Iyengar, a Columbia University professor, did a simple but revealing experiment on multiplicity of choices. On two consecutive Saturdays, Iyengar had a tasting booth set up in a supermarket. On the first Saturday, she offered buyers 24 flavors of jam; on the second – only 6.

Most of us would predict that the 24-flavor booth sold much more than the 6-flavor booth. In fact, 60 percent of customers stopped at the 24-flavor booth to taste some jam, and 40 percent stopped at the 6-flavor booth.

So we might predict that because more customers stopped at the 24-flavor booth, it naturally outperformed the 6-flavor booth. And we would be wrong. The customers were 10 times more likely to buy some jam when they were offered only 6 flavors than when they were offered 24.

Choice Overload

The culprit behind the failure of the 24-flavor booth is the choice overload. A close cousin of analysis paralysis, the choice overload (also known as overchoice) means that consumers faced with too many choices will likely make no choice.

When Multiplicity of Choices is Beneficial

To be sure, in some situations multiplicity of choices is beneficial. One obvious situation is where multitude of choices are on a single dimension. For example, it is better to offer 10 different sizes of the same shoes than just 2. With multi-dimensional choices, some studies suggest that the optimal number is somewhere between 5 and 10. And highly-informed consumers handle better the high number of choices.


Sheena Iyengar: The Art of Choosing

Barry Schwartz: The Paradox of Choice

TEDGlobal 2005: Barry Schwartz on the Paradox of Choice

TEDGlobal 2010: Sheena Iyengar on the Art of Choosing