The Paradox of Choice: Jam Experiment

The freedom of choice. Different people infer different things from this conundrum, but what all of them have in common is the option of choosing. As a matter of fact, the saying “the more freedom you have, the more choices you have” is so deeply embedded in society that it would not occur to anyone to question it. Well, luckily, it did, as a result of which the paradox of choice was discovered, changing the game in key spheres of human endeavour. 


On a daily basis, people face various products, brands, models, and alternatives so everyone can choose something that fits. But have you ever wondered how many choices are actually enough? How many types of yogurts, smartphones, cars, services, material things, lifestyles, etc. should there be for one actually to make a good choice and eventually be satisfied? The more the better? It turns out that quite the opposite is the case.



This theory was created as a result of the Jam study, one of the most famous experiments in consumer psychology ever undertaken, conducted at the upscale Bay-area supermarket Draeger’s Market by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper. According to the design of the experiment, on one day, the store’s customers were offered 24 different types of jam in the supermarket. On the following day, however, the number of jam types was reduced to just 6. Having analysed the relation between the number of jam types offered and the sales of jam on a given day, the researchers discovered a significant difference between the two cases. Namely, Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper found that consumers were 10 times more likely to purchase jam on display when the number of types available was reduced from 24 to 6. In other words, that meant that the less choice there was, the more sales there were, and vice versa. 

These results challenged what people thought they knew about human nature and the determinants of well-being. From the perspective of both psychology and business, people had assumed that the relationship between choice and well-being must be straightforward. That is to say, the more choices people have, the better off they are. Namely, in psychology, the benefits of choice have been associated with a person’s autonomy and control. On the other hand, in business, the advantages of choice have been related to the benefits of free markets in general.

The reason for the opposite behaviour was explained as choice overload. This idea rests on the understanding that the more options you give people, the more time and effort they have to invest in making a choice. Therefore, we observe a diminishing marginal utility in having alternatives. That is to say, each new option reduces the feeling of satisfaction and well-being. Moreover, being exposed to numerous options puts a psychological burden on people, because what you are actually doing is giving them more opportunities to make the wrong choice and regret their choice afterward. Therefore, ironically, instead of the promised freedom, what we get with so many options is confusion and demotivation about making a decision. In other words, the freedom of choice, providing there are too many of them, makes it hard to choose at all.


Lowered Satisfaction

If we, however, overcome the feeling of confusion and the resulting, so-called paralysis and make a choice, we inevitably end up less satisfied with the decision made, because the feeling that we could have made a better choice, for instance by picking one of the alternatives, lowers the level of satisfaction significantly, usually making us experience regret, even if the decision was good after all. All of this would not obtain if fewer choices were being offered.


Man confused with the range of goods in supermarket
Too many choices – too much confusion


The way in which we value things depends greatly on what we compare them to. This has a direct relation to the basic reality of opportunity cost. Naturally, given numerous alternatives, it is easier to imagine all the possible advantages and benefits we would gain by the means of obtaining one of the alternatives. Opportunity cost, therefore, subtracts from satisfaction about the eventual choice, even if we choose well.


The Escalation of Expectation

Another aspect influenced by the abundance of choices is our expectations. With all the alternatives we have the expectation of how good things should be going up. Consumers start to believe that out there in the vast sea of available choices, there should be a perfect one. So even when we get something fairly good, we still think that there must be something better. It is good if you actually have found the perfect item, but normally, we end up feeling that something is still missing, even we have made a good decision.


Unhappy with the purchase
It´s exhausting to make the perfect choice


Just consider one of the last times you went shopping, where you had a perfect image of what you wanted and what it should look like, yet you ended up unsatisfied, discouraged, or even angry because you simply did not like anything. Now imagine that instead of a huge shopping mall, with several shops offering hundreds of outfits, you had fewer offerings. Wouldn’t this make it easier for you to choose? Maybe not, but this would definitely lower your expectations, making you like the things which are just good enough, setting aside the image of total perfection.


Self-Criticism and Blame

 With any type of decision, there is a certain level of responsibility. In the case of the limited number of offers and the wrong choice made, the responsibility goes to ‘the world’ or, more precisely, to market and supply. However, if there are so many options being supplied and we are the ones who decide what to choose, the responsibility becomes our burden. This is where self-criticism comes from, resulting in a totally negative experience. According to the studies by David Myer, depression has evolved significantly in the industrial age and even more in recent years. One of the contributors to this fact is the aforementioned freedom of choice because when we make a wrong choice, we blame ourselves and think that we are the ones who are at fault. This is both incredible and paradoxical because most of the choices are actually good.  But the amount of possible alternatives overwhelms us and has a massive negative influence.

As a surprising result, an abundance of options does not help but, on the contrary, hurts. It makes it hard for us to make a choice and be satisfied even with the most sophisticated and personalised offers. The solution to this, however, is not monopolisation or returning to the system where shortages were commonplace. As a matter of fact, there are places in the world, where there is still a huge lack of alternatives. In those places, people do not struggle with making choices, simply because they have none. Therefore, if it were possible to give up some of the alternatives we have to those people and societies who have too few, not only would their lives would be improved but also ours. This is something which in economics is called the Pareto improving move.

Redistribution of income can make everyone better off, including rich and poor people, and manage the existing imbalance between societies, eventually giving the desired satisfaction and sense of well-being.

Photos: Shutterstock / Photomontage: Martina Advaney

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