Too much choice makes my brain hurt. I am not alone in this – there have been a lot of studies looking at how people react to too much choice. Some of them are discussed here.
My behaviour certainly reflects the findings of research: if I go into a shop which gives me too many varieties of one item I am likely spend time and energy trying to weigh up the options and eventually walk out, frustrated, and without what I came in for. The more variety there is the more I feel that none of the options are at all acceptable and it is inconceivable that I should part with my money for an unacceptable option having already spent so long looking for the one I want.
This post was triggered by a post by Zitaka about the staggering number of cereal choices available in America. My cereal of choice is called Just Right. That’s got to be a branding decision based on cereal manufacturers being aware that there is already too much choice in the cereal aisle for anyone to make a rational decision. Can’t chose a cereal because there’s too much choice? This one will be Just Right for you. (Unfortunately I don’t find it “just right” and top it with muesli to make it more substantial but the point about the branding still stands.)
Also working along the same lines but going a bit further with it is the current television advert for Olay Total effects skin cream. You can watch it here. The script begins “Most of the time I like to have as many options as possible… but not when it comes to skin care. It seems that for practically every problem there’s a different cream.” Thandie Newton expressively portrays the confusion that is often genuinely seen (on my face at least) in the cosmetics aisle. By then sweeping aside the clutter of generic pots on the table in front of her she sweeps away the confusion and shows how much simpler it is just to buy the product she’s endorsing. It’s a very clever advert that makes its point because its makers know the research about how shoppers react to too much choice. However even while using that to their advantage they are careful to not tarnish the good reputation of choice (“Most of the time I like as much choice as possible”) so as not to alienate people as most people have the instinctive reaction that lots of choice is a good thing, not a bad one.
In the supermarkets most own brand products come in delux, regular and economy versions because that is just enough choice to make people feel they have options but not so many options that they can’t chose.
So even while the supermarkets and marketing companies bewilder us with too much choice they are using our reactions to choice to make more sales on their products. My head still hurts.