The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar was one of those books which Crossword promoted heavily. There were at least a few dozen of them stacked right next to the door. I have a tendency to avoid such pompous promotions ( Sheena Iyengar has an explanation for this -I am trying to establish my individuality through my choice). As it turns out the book is not just any marketing book; it is the outcome of a series of researches by the author and very interesting and insightful.
Sheena Iyengar is famous for her Jam experiment which proved beyond doubt the complexity involved in dealing with too much choice. The experiment goes on some thing like this.
There are two experimental scenarios – One where there are 6 different flavors of jam and another where there are 24 different flavors of jam and the experimenter looked at 2 things. First, in what case were people more likely to buy a jar of jam? The first thing, in what case were people more likely to be attracted to the jar or jam, so in which case are people more likely to stop when they saw the display of jams
The results are interesting. More people stopped when there were 24 jams. About 60% of the people stopped when there was 24 jams on display and when there was 6 different flavors of jam out on display only 40% of the people actually stopped, so more people were clearly attracted to the larger varieties of options, but then when it came down to buying, the results were very different. Out of the people who stopped when there were 24 different flavors of jam out on display only 3% of them actually bought a jar of jam whereas of the people who stopped when there were 6 different flavors of jam 30% of them actually bought a jar of jam. Hence people were actually 6 times more likely to buy a jar of jam if they had encountered 6 than if they encountered 24. While people were more attracted to having more options, that’s what sort of got them in the door or got them to think about jam, when it came to choosing time they were actually less likely to make a choice if they had more to choose from than if they had fewer to choose from.
The above experiment ended up starting an entire area of research where the author began to look at “Why is that?”
Sheena explains -And a large part of that has to do with the fact that when people have a lot of options to choose from they don’t know how to tell them apart. They don’t know how to keep track of them. They start asking themselves “Well which one is the best? Which one would be good for me?” And all those questions are much easier to ask if you’re choosing from six than when you’re choosing from 24 and if you look at the marketplace today most often we have a lot more than 24 of things to choose from. And what we found over about, say, 10 years of research is that as the number of choices actually increase people are less likely to make a choice and sometimes they do this even when it’s really bad for them. Like, people are less likely to invest in their retirement when they have more options in their 401K plans than when they have fewer.
What I found really interesting is her triangle of individuality, freedom and choice . In a society where we try to exhibit our individuality/ identity through our choice, our choices are also determined by the meaning we give them. And then with culture thrown in, choice does become a psychologist pet subject.