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How choice affects behaviour

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How choice affects behaviour

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Choice is generally seen as a good thing in life, and certainly when compared to the alternative of having no choice.  The web offers a playground of choices, from the millions of websites nary a click away to the millions of products available to buy from online retailers.  Choice is everywhere.

Is it always a good thing though?  Braess’ Paradox for instance suggests that when we have fewer potential options when selecting a route from A to B, it actually results in less congestion.  Research has also shown that having extra choices in a social networking context can result in poorer experiences and choices.

The so called Paradox of Choice was coined by Barry Schwartz in his 2004 book of the same name, and suggests that having too many choices causes us unwanted anxiety.

A new study from Penn State adds to this thesis, suggesting that the number of decisions we’re faced with not only affects our decision making, but also hinders our self control.

“Making a lot of choices leads to what researchers call ego-depletion, and that can affect self-control,” says S. Shyam Sundar, professor of communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State. “When a person makes a lot of choices, the ability to exert self-control begins to diminish with every choice.”

The study found that when people had to make a lot of choices, they were more prone to make impulsive decisions. For example, while making online purchases, customers may be more prone to buy upgraded, but unneeded features, toward the end of the sale.

“People should become aware that if they are making a lot of choices—for example, during hotel or travel purchases—the activity can deplete their ability to control their actions,” says Sundar. “They may want to take a break and step away from the computer for a while to recharge that self-control.”

Of course, some companies may be quite happy for their customers to make impulsive decisions rather than reasoned ones, but the research does provide some extra ammunition for whichever way you approach the buying process.

I’ll leave with an old, but excellent, TED talk by Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice.

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