How to Choose Between too Many Choices

Last Updated Apr 28, 2010 3:58 PM EDT

Not only do we love choice here in the United States, but unlike in other countries, it's a key part of our heritage.

"Here we were, a nation for the first time in history, built on the principle of political freedom," said The Art of Choosing author and Columbia Business School professor Sheena Iyengar during our recent conversation. Along with political freedom, economic and social freedoms were also part of our foundation. As a result, says Iyengar, "Since 1776, as a culture, we've kept adding more and more freedom as the centuries went on."

Because of these freedoms, we have a lot of choices to make. "Every single one of us has to make choices from the moment we wake up in the morning from the moment we go to bed, and we have to think about things ranging from the trivial to the highly consequential. Per domain, the number of choices are exploding," says Iyengar.

The jam experiment
As a graduate student at Stanford, Iyengar first became interest in the effects of these many options. She conducted a now well-known experiment in which she set up a grocery store sample table consisting of either 24 or six types of jam. When 24 jams were available, 60 percent of customers stopped at the sample display. When six types were available, only 40 percent stopped.

However, "of the people who stopped when there were 24 kinds of jam, only three percent bought a jar. By contrast, of the people who stopped when there were six jars of jam, 30 percent bought a jar," says Iyengar. "So while they were initially more attracted to the larger display of options, when it came down to making a choice, they were six times more likely to choose when there were fewer jars of jam on display."
Too much of a good thing?
The jam experiment showed the downside of too many choices. Iyengar explains, "What you see happen to people is they essentially have difficulty trying to chose and identify the one that is the 'best.' Often they have very little time, and they don't know the criteria by which they're supposed to choose."

How to make better choices
So what should you do the next time you feel overwhelmed by your number of choices? "If it's jam and it's not really important to you, you pick the first that seems reasonable. Don't fixate on whether it's best or not," says Iyengar.

For more important choices, such as picking out a wedding ring, Iyengar says, "The mistake that we often make is we go to the store that has a ton of options that show the beautiful range of varieties available to us. Our brains can't handle that much in one shot."

Instead, she advises, "Go to several different boutiques that offer fewer choices. This will enable you to develop a more specific criteria of what you're looking for: I like the rings that are simple, or I like the bands that have a bit more work on them, or whatever. Once you have the specifics of what you're looking for, you're now better equipped and prepared to walk into that store that's offering you 1,000 or more options."
  • Stacy Blackman

    Stacy Sukov Blackman is president of Stacy Blackman Consulting, where she consults on MBA admissions. She earned her MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and her Bachelor of Science from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Stacy serves on the Board of Directors of AIGAC, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, and has published a guide to MBA Admissions, The MBA Application Roadmap.