Why Understanding the Paradox of Choice Will Make you a Better Marketer

Image couresty of: Freddy The Boy

Contrary to what might seem logical, having fewer choices may be preferable for human beings.  We tend to think we’d like to have lots of choices, no matter what situation we find ourselves in.  We feel having choices empowers us. For  example if you want to purchase a new shirt doesn’t it seem like having 20 different colors to choose from so you can pick the one that is perfect for yourself is better than having just three?

Turns out that our brains may in fact be much better suited to making decisions when there are fewer choices. Experiments show that giving a smaller number of choices leads to a buying decision for more people. For example, one experiment was held in a grocery store where people were given three jam choices to sample. Upon sampling the three a third of the tasters chose to purchase a bottle of one of the three jams. However, when the same experiment was conducted with 25 jam choices only 3% of the consumers bought a jam.

Deciding NOT to Buy

An example that is closer to my own life comes from a former place of employment of mine. I was not involved directly with this project so a little artistic license will be taken here. The company is a well respected successful direct to consumer publisher of alternative health products.

The project was a direct mail campaign for one of their print newsletters. Traditionally they had not used a toll free number on their mail pieces. Anyone who has ever worked with toll free numbers on a large scale knows they are quite expensive to maintain and they had chosen to not use one. However one question kept coming up. “Are we leaving money on the table by not providing a phone number since some people would prefer to order this way?” It seemed logical that you should provide your potential customers with as many different paths to respond to your offer as possible.

So eventually a test was set up with the 800 number added. The two mail pieces were identical except for the addition of the ability to order by phone. As you probably already guessed the piece with the toll free number tanked. While it cannot be proven that it was the Paradox of Choice that caused this effect all indications are that it was. This, if course, was a very specific situation and you should not by any means go slashing your phone numbers from your marketing pieces. But you might consider testing the removal of one avenue of responding to your offer. You might be surprised by the results.

Pleasure & Pain

To understand why this kind of thing happens we need to take a look inside the brain. When we are presented with a product that we want, say a new pair of shoes or a big high definition TV, a part of our brain called the nucleus accumbens is activated.

The nucleus accumbens, in this left facing brain, is near the number 34
The nucleus accumbens, in this left facing brain, is near the number 34

This area of the brain is associated with reward and pleasure and the dopamine release that goes with them. However, when then presented with the cost of the product another part of our brain, the part associated with physical pain and loss, called the insula kicks in.

The insula of the left side of the brain
The insula of the left side of the brain

The uncertainly about the buying decision is very uncomfortable for us and this uncertainty is heightened when we have what our brains perceive to be too many choices/decisions to make.  Our insula is forced to work double time when we have those 25 jams to choose from instead of just the three. It’s easy to see why many of us would decide to end that uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty by just deciding to not buy any of them.

The K.I.S.S. Rule

So what does this mean to you as a marketer? It’s the old K.I.S.S. rule: Keep it simple silly. Don’t overwhelm your consumer with too many choices. Make the decision making easy for them. This doesn’t mean to not ever give your customers choices. Just edit them and give only the ones that truly matter. You will be rewarded in the end with more sales.

My thanks to Johan Lehrer author of  ‘How We Decide’ for the inspiration for this blog.

Photo courtesy of Freddy the Boy

Disclaimer: I am not a scientist or a doctor and the simplistic view of decision making I have outlined here is just for example purposes. So don’t go hatin’ on me for it. Okay?