Freedom is Slavery

Mike Taylor | 9 September 2016

We live in a time of almost infinite choice. Things to do, things to buy, things to occupy our attention. But this surfeit of choice leads to poorer decision-making and being unhappier with the choices we do make.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz describes the phenomenon as “The Paradox of Choice.” He writes that “A life without significant choice would be unlivable. Being able to choose has enormous positive effects on us. But only up to a point… A point is reached at which increased choice brings increased misery rather than increased opportunity.”

Who has not felt that misery, at the end of a long day, standing in the supermarket being faced with the vast range of the shampoo section? Any of them will do that, but all the extra features leave you struggling to decide which will clean your hair best. Welcome to decision paralysis.

Our brains can only handle so much. Too much choice increases cognitive load to the point where our brains become full – a situation which can lead to being unable to decide at all.

This phenomenon, called decision paralysis, is the consequence of too many options and more information about them than we can deal with. The more comparisons we are forced to make, the more likely we are to just give up altogether.

We instinctively lay more importance on avoiding negatives than achieving positives. So we prefer to avoid making a decision, thus avoiding the risk of making the wrong one, even if the result of making a decision would provide gains no matter which option we picked. We don’t buy shampoo, even though any shampoo would get our hair clean, to avoid the possibility of choosing the wrong shampoo.

Having too many choices also makes us less happy with the decisions we do make. When there are so many options, how can we be sure we have made the best choice? Our confidence in our decisions goes down, and our dissatisfaction with our choices goes up. And when the decision involved spending money, we start to experience buyer’s remorse.

Scientific studies bear this out. A study which set up a tasting table of jams in a supermarket found that while people were initially more attracted to a large selection of 24 jams, people who were offered only six jams were 10 times more likely to actually buy one of the jams they tasted.

In another study, participants were offered a choice of selecting from a range of either six or 30 chocolates. While most people preferred to be offered a selection of 30 chocolates, they also found the decision-making experience more frustrating and were less satisfied with the chocolates they finally chose.

We tend to have unrealistic expectations of how happy purchases will make us, and how long that happiness will last. When our happiness doesn’t meet those expectations, or doesn’t last as long as we thought it should, buyer’s remorse sets in. We begin to notice the negatives of our choice, and wonder if we would have been better off making a different decision. Unhappiness over perceived negatives often lasts longer than happiness over the positives, even if the positives greatly outweigh the negatives.

The more feature-packed a product, and the more it costs, the higher our expectations of it. We expect a single perfect choice to exist, and we can almost feel it just out of our reach. So we look for more options, which in turn increases our likelihood of decision paralysis, along with pre-decision regret and buyer’s remorse.

Unsurprisingly, your personality affects how you feel about your decisions. Satisficers – people who want to make a good enough choice – suffer lower levels of post-decision regret than Maximisers – people who want to make the best choice.

Maximisers are more likely to worry that there is a better choice they could have made, and end to be less happy with the choice they did make. Maximisers are also more likely to suffer decision paralysis.

Society’s push towards perfection means more of us are becoming Maximisers – which means we are facing a higher number of choices for each decision, and being less happy with the decisions we make. And with each of us making upwards of 70 decisions a day, that’s plenty of opportunity to be unhappy.

So what makes it easier to make decisions? A limited number of options with fewer differing features is an obvious answer, but in a world of expanding choice that seems unlikely.

We find it easier to make decisions following recommendations from people we trust. We place a lot of weight on recommendations from peers – we feel less remorse if we have made the same decision as all our friends, even if there genuinely was a better choice available.

We also value expert advice, although the role of the expert who guides the consumer in choosing or recommends one choice has been diminished in the guise of consumer empowerment. But far from being empowered to make decisions, without guidance people are more likely to forgo making a decision at all.

Any kind of pressure makes it harder to choose. If the decision we have to make is particularly important, if there is a time limit on the decision, or if the consequence of making the wrong decision is high, then the likelihood of decision paralysis increases. And if we absolutely must make a decision under pressure, we are more likely to suffer post-decision regret.

In a sea of choices, how can your brand beat both decision paralysis and your competition?

The first step is to look at the number of options you provide and pare it down. When Procter & Gamble reduced its Head and Shoulders range from 26 to 16 varieties, sales increased by 10%. And Apple is the benchmark in terms of focusing on a high-quality but limited range of products.

With experts shouldering some of the cognitive load for consumers, positioning your brand as the expert in your field can help customers feel better about buying from you.

Give yourself a point of difference. A customer needs a positive reason to hang their choice on in order to feel more comfortable making a decision. Your point of difference should be that reason. That point of difference could be something about your product, or the reputation of your brand.

If you’re online, make sure you engage customers for reviews – particularly happy customers, and particularly during the early period after the sale when expected happiness is highest and buyer’s remorse is yet to set in.

Make the buying process as positive and complication-free as possible – and remember it doesn’t end when money changes hands. Offer future support and updates, discount vouchers and freebies, even membership into a club for purchasers of your product. Continued engagement with the customer helps to extend the length of time they feel happy about their purchase.

You can even harness some of the power of decision paralysis. Because not making an active decision often results in maintaining the status quo, being that status quo can help you retain customers. Take a few extra steps to keep the customers who actively choose you happy, and they will feel that having made the choice once, they don’t have to make it again.

Ultimately you want your customers to choose you, be happy with their choice, and become positive influencers for your brand. Digitally, it requires a comprehensive strategy involving brand, communications, development, and an innate understanding of your consumers. Make sure you have the right strategy in place to help your customers make good decisions and stay happy they chose you.