Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Paradox of Choice: How We as Marketers Can Help People Choose Better

I came across
Barry Schwartz’s
book The Paradox of Choice
recently and decided to buy it. I made a good decision. The premise behind the book is that too much choice (as we have it in modern affluent societies) is really not that good and is actually counter-productive – it makes people make worse choices, if they make them at all.

It turns out that too much choice produces paralysis. And when we manage to make a choice, we end up being less satisfied with it. It is easy to image that we could have made a better choice even if we did make a good decision. I am sure most of us have experienced this regretful emotion not one but many times and in different situations. I remember when I first came to the US and went into a supermarket to buy some essentials. My expectation was that essentials should be easy to buy – after all, it is essentials we are talking about. Little did I know that I would face two isles of breads, infinite varieties of flour, flavors, and preparations. I just wanted bread that I liked – and I was beyond overwhelmed. After facing myriad of choices on an hour-by-hour basis for a few days, I was ready to head back home where choice, albeit more limited, was manageable.

I didn’t know that living in a world of unlimited choice and opportunity would turn out to be a challenge – that when choosing one thing, I would feel I was giving up something else. More importantly, that the presence of these various choices would make me less satisfied with my original picks.

Barry Schwartz says that evidently nobody in the world of marketing knows this – he implies that we are part of the problem. Well, most of us don’t. Most companies believe that launching just one more brand extension, one more flavor, or one more bundle, would capture us more market share. Everywhere you turn – from SaaS companies, to mutual funds, to medical services, to retailers, to supermarkets, to social networks – it is all about the next flavor we sure will be gobbling up. What we fail to realize as marketers is that offering so many options to our customers makes them not only more confused and unsatisfied, but makes people feel like they are a failure. If we only had one option to choose from, it is the company, not us, who’s to blame if the choice turns out bad. But with thousands of options out there, we are know that there must be at least one alternative that is perfect – and if we don’t pick it, it is us who are responsible for the failure.

There is a lesson to be learned from companies like Twitter and Apple – simplify the choices we face. Keep them to a minimum. Don’t inundate me with product flavors, options, or customization boxes. Tell me what’s good enough. Give me an easy guidepost for making decisions.

I yet agree with Barry Schwartz: the secret to life is low expectations.

You can listen to Barry’s TED review of his book


Wishing us all to be living in the moment,


  1. I couldn't agree more with Barry (and you?) that us marketers are "part of the problem." Marketers want to be loved and want their products to be loved - by _everyone_, and that's the problem. We are always trying to invent more options to increase the possibility that somebody will say YES to us. That's fine if we take the time to tailor offerings and messages to the right microsegments, but if we slack off on that, I figure we should at least have the confidence to put our best offer out there and not make people think too much. Not everybody will say yes, but it'll be a lot easier for them to decide.

  2. An excellent book on how to approach the antidote - Simplicity by Edward De Bono.

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