Should we save consumers from consumer choice?

So many choices, so little time (Photo credit: Nishan Bichajian)

A few years ago a colleague and I went into a highly-recommended sandwich shop for lunch, the kind that offers a stunning variety of non-traditional combinations of meats and cheeses and sauces and breads. While my friend ordered his usual, I became almost instantly paralyzed with indecision, as multiple menus challenged me to select a four-category combination of foods that would theoretically create a superb sandwich — but which in practice overwhelmed my capacity to choose items that would even be edible when put together. I capitulated after a frustrating minute, and asked for one of whatever my friend had bought (while wishing, helplessly, for a simple ham-and-cheese).

I therefore got a pleasant dose of personal validation from the results of a recent study on the value of choice in optimizing outcomes, both its perceived value and its actual value when compared with outcomes produced by no-choice or limited-choice situations. The study, “Dazed and confused by choice: How the temporal costs of choice freedom lead to undesirable outcomes”, was conducted by Simona Botti, Assistant Professor of Marketing at London Business School, and by Christopher K. Hsee of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business; it argues that people typically over-estimate the benefits from having a range of options to choose from, and typically under-estimate the costs of actually making their choices. While the time cost of selection is an easy trap to understand (if not to avoid), the emotional costs seem even more intriguing:

It seems that decision makers often experience anxiety when they choose. They feel ‘buyer’s remorse’ and worry that they have made the wrong choice. People tend to forestall this uncomfortable feeling by considering more options and collecting more information, even if the new information is unlikely to sway the outcome. As you can imagine, this additional search may increase, rather than reduce, the emotional discomfort and at the same time generate distracting thoughts. The result is poor and costly decisions.

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