Sheena Iyengar is a professor at Columbia University and an innovator in research on choice. I’ve been sitting on an advance copy of her new book, The Art of Choosing, which I’ve just discovered has been released. It’s a great book. I recommend it for anyone interested in learning more about this whole “free will” thing.
Iyengar is rather famous in the psychology community. In 1995, she conducted an experiment at Draeger’s, a purveyor of a huge variety of gourmet and rare foods and wines. In some ways, Draeger’s could have been compared to Walmart for rich people. The aisles were full of literally thousands of varieties of all manner of sauces, jams, olives, wines, cheeses, and anything else the advanced chef could desire.
But Draeger’s was having some problems with sales. People were coming into the store in droves, but sales were inexplicably low for the number of customers they were attracting. Iyengar had been conducting studies on choice with young children, and had come up with some puzzling results. She offered to conduct a follow up study which could potentially improve sales for Draeger’s.
A booth was set up at the front of the store, offering a variety of free samples of jam. Secret experimenters surreptitiously kept detailed records of which customers stopped, which jams they sampled, what they eventually bought, and how long it took for them to make their decision.
The experiment consisted of changing the number of choices every hour. For one hour, they offered 24 different jams. For the next hour, they offered six. The results were startling:
- Regardless of the number of options, customers averaged 2 samples apiece.
- When there were 6 choices, 40% of entering customers stopped at the booth, and 30% bought jam.
- When there were 24 choices, 60% of entering customers stopped at the booth, but only 3 percent bought jam.
- Customers who had only 6 choices went straight to the one they wanted on the jam aisle, and spent less than a minute making their choice.
- Customers who had 24 choices stood puzzled for several minutes, and seemed incapable of making any decision at all. The vast majority left without making a purchase. (Hint: Their decision making circuits got jammed up. Hehehe…)
Follow up studies have reinforced the results of this experiment, and have also explained some of the mechanisms behind it. In a nutshell, it works like this: We believe that more choice is always better than less choice, but there is a real cognitive limit to our ability to process multiple options. The magic number is 7. With fewer than seven choices, we’re really quite good at getting exactly what we want (or getting the answer right, whichever is applicable). Above seven, our ability to correctly match choices with their respective qualities diminishes quickly.
There are confounding variables, of course. The more we know about what we want, the better we are at digging through lots of choices. But this is because well informed choosers are better at weeding out options and reducing them to less than seven. If I want a car under $50,000, I’m going to be stumped in most car lots. But if I want a car under $50,000 that gets above 30mpg in the city, has two doors, satellite radio, and a spacious trunk, I’ll be able to immediately discard the vast majority of choices, and might even leave myself with only one or two options.
The value of the choice is also a major factor. Given a beer list with two hundred draft choices, I can easily pick one. It really doesn’t matter. If I don’t like the first one, I can just choose again, and I’m only out five bucks. But if I’m presented with fifty options for my 401k, I will probably feel frustrated and incapable of making a reasonable choice.
We also have the ability to recognize patterns which give us a shockingly good memory for options. In one experiment, chess masters were able to correctly place 23 or 24 out of 25 pieces after viewing the board for only five seconds. Novices were lucky to get more than 2 or 3. However, this effect only worked when the pieces were part of a “normal game.” If they were placed randomly, the masters’ performance was similar to the novices.
What does this mean to me?
The upshot of all of this information is that we can improve our choices in life by recognizing our own limitations. A common technique used by psychologists is “rounds of three.” When we are faced with seemingly overwhelming choices, we can try to categorize and reduce them to three initial choices. If we pick option 1, then we have three more choices. If option 2, three different choices. This kind of reduction and categorization can go on as long as necessary to weed things down to one clear choice.
Here’s a real life example. Whenever I go clothes shopping, the first thing I do is find an attractive sales girl (because I want to dress to impress people that are attractive to me) and ask her to pick out her favorite three or four shirts or pants, or whatever it is I want to buy. Once I’ve chosen the one I like the most, I ask her to pick out three or four items that will go well with what I’ve chosen. In this way, I can get in and out of the store in half an hour with a nice new wardrobe I can feel confident with.
Of course, you don’t have to let someone else narrow your choices down. Ben Franklin had an interesting method for choosing between two options with many attributes. He drew a line down the middle of a piece of paper and wrote out all the pros on one side and all the cons on the other. Realizing that all pros are not equal, he then assigned “weight” to each item. For instance, a really important pro might rank “9” while a trivial one would rank “1.” Anytime he encountered a matching pair — a pro and a con of equal value — or a set of two or three of each which added up to the same amount, he would cross them off the list. In the end, he was left with either one pro or con, or an unbalanced weight which didn’t cancel out. In either case, his choice was clear. Obviously, this isn’t a foolproof method for making a choice, but it’s a great exercise in reducing choice.
Reducing Mate Choice
Many experts on dating and mating recommend the same kind of approach to dating. We in the West often have a “Walmart Mentality” to dating. For guys, we want a beautiful young woman who is very smart, has a porn star sex drive, cleans house like June Cleaver, and can name the head coach of half the NFL. A lot of girls are looking for an alpha guy with a great job, lots of life skills, a great sense of humor, a soft and sensitive side, great muscle definition, fantastic social skills, and oh yeah… who also happens to be a one woman man who’s always ready to listen to the day’s problems and is happy to have sex only as often as the girl’s ready.
This is a great area for reducing choice. Write out everything you want in a mate. Everything you can think of. Next, take no longer than 30 seconds and choose the three things you really wouldn’t want to live without. That’s your base list. Now, take no less than 30 seconds and choose the one thing out of those three that you could not possibly live without. That’s your number one criterion.
Now, when you meet someone new, start with number one. Do they have it? If not, they’re not an option. If you meet more than one person, compare all three criteria and decide who has more. That’s who you date.
Of course, this takes sexual attraction completely out of the picture, and that’s not reasonable. But I’m assuming that if you’re considering dating someone, you’re sexually attracted to them. If not… why are you considering dating them?! Drop them off the list. Sexual attraction precedes the list.
The beauty of this method is that it gets us in the business of thinking in terms of what we want most and keeps us from being overwhelmed by the differences between our prospective mates. It helps us think in the long term — things that will be important after we’re past the dopamine high that has us seeing through a fog of lust.
So there it is. We like to believe that we have lots and lots of choices. (That’s why more people went to the booth with 24 than the one with 6.) But we’re actually not very good at choosing between too many options. It’s ok to go to Walmart, or to date lots of people, but when it comes time to make a choice, remember that less is more. Utilize the 3x3x3 choice method. Eliminate equal qualities from the decision and focus only on differences. Realize that more information equals more ability to reduce choice.