When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?

Abstract (Via Sheena Iyenga @ Columbia.edu)

Current psychological theory and research affirm the positive affective and motivational consequences of having personal choice. These findings have led to the popular notion that more choice is better, that the human ability to desire and manage choice is unlimited. Findings from three studies starkly challenge the implicit assumption that having more choice is necessarily more intrinsically motivating than having fewer options. These three experiments which were conducted in field and laboratory settings show that people are more likely to purchase exotic jams or gourmet chocolates, and undertake optional class essay assignments, when offered a limited array of 6 choices rather than an extensive array of 24 or 30 choices. Moreover, participants actually reported greater subsequent satisfaction with their selections and wrote better essays when their original set of options had been restricted rather than expanded. Implications for future research are discussed.

Additional Excerpts (Via Sheena Iyenga @ Columbia.edu)

It is a common supposition in American society, that “the more choices the better”— that the human ability to desire and manage choice is infinite. From classic economic theories of free enterprise, to mundane marketing practices which provide customers with entire aisles devoted to potato chips or soft drinks, to important life decisions in which people contemplate alternative career options or multiple investment opportunities, this belief pervades our economics, norms, and customs. Ice cream parlors compete to offer the most flavors; a major fast-food chain urges us to “Have it your way.”

On the face of it, this supposition seems well supported by decades of psychological theory and research that has repeatedly demonstrated, across many domains, a link between the provision of choice and increases in intrinsic motivation, perceived control, task performance, and life satisfaction (Deci, 1975, 1981; Deci & Ryan, 1985; Glass & Singer, 1972a, 1972b; Langer & Rodin, 1976; Rotter, 1966; Schulz & Hanusa, 1978; Taylor, 1989; Taylor & Brown, 1988). In a typical laboratory study, the intrinsic motivation of participants is compared across two conditions: one in which participants are given a choice among half a dozen possible activities, and a second in which participants are told by an experimenter which specific activity to undertake (Zuckerman, Porac, Lathin, Smith & Deci, 1978). The recurring empirical finding from these studies is that the provision of choice increases intrinsic motivation and enhances performance on a variety of tasks


On the other hand, a growing body of research also suggests that people can have difficulty managing complex choices. To begin with, research has shown that as the attractiveness of alternatives rises individuals experience conflict and, as a result, tend to defer decision, search for new alternatives, choose the default option, or simply opt not to choose (Shafir & Tversky, 1992; Shafir, Simonson & Tversky, 1993; Dhar, 1997). Additionally, just as Miller (1956) might have predicted, consumer research suggests that as both the number of options and the information about options increases, people tend to consider fewer choices and process smaller percentages of the overall information regarding their choices (Hauser & Wernerfelt, 1990).

In fact, studies show that the selection, evaluation and integration of information are all clearly affected by the available number of options—suggesting that, as the complexity of choice-making rises, people tend to simplify their decision-making processes by relying on simple heuristics (Payne, 1982; Timmermans, 1993; Wright, 1975). For instance, a comparison of the decision strategies of people encountering three, six, or nine alternatives revealed that 21% employed an elimination strategy in the case of three options, 31% employed an elimination strategy in the case of six options, and 77% employed an elimination strategy when there were nine options (Timmermans, 1993). The increasing percentage of subjects using an elimination strategy with a growing number of alternatives was also accompanied by a lower percentage of information used. This sharp decrease in the number of attributes considered as problem complexity increases suggests that information overload may produce a change to a non-compensatory but more efficient decision rule.

Conclusions (Via Sheena Iyengar @ Columbia.edu)

Similarly, precisely what constitutes a reasonable, as opposed to an excessive, number of options will presumably vary as a function of the context in which choice is presented (e.g., a class assignment, a menu, a benefits program, on a supermarket shelf), as indicated in the introduction. Finally, even when choices are self-generated, it is possible that overly extensive choices may have demotivating consequences. Since people seem to enjoy extensive-choice contexts more than limited-choice contexts, they may sometimes prefer to make available to themselves many more choices than they can possibly handle. Hence, it would be of considerable theoretical interest to examine the effects of extensive-choice contexts that are self-generated, rather than externally generated, as in the current studies.

Having unlimited options, then, can lead people to be more dissatisfied with the choices they make. Although such a finding may seem counter-intuitive to social psychologists schooled in research on the benefits of choice, to many of today’s humorists, this phenomenon seems already well known. Consider, for example, this portrayal by Bill Watterson, of one particularly exasperated grocery shopper:

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15. December 2009 by Miguel Barbosa
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