How you can avoid the tyranny of choice


A couple of weeks ago, I had agreed to meet some friends of mine at a restaurant for lunch. I had eaten at the same place once before and thought it was a good place. When my friends arrived, we sat down and looked at the menu and for the next 15 minutes, barely anyone spoke.

Why? Well, because we were suffering. We were victims of our own good fortune. The menu was two sides of A3 sized card. On both sides, there were dozens after dozens of wonderful looking options for a quick lunch.

In the end, I chose the thing that I had had on the previous occasion. Not because I’m a creature of habit but because I felt blinded by the multitude of my available options.

Ever been in a similar situation? You’re not alone.

The tyranny of choice

Look at this quote from author Nicolas Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile

Given the lengthening and complication of menus, subjecting me to what psychologists call the tyranny of choice, with the stinging feeling after my decision that I should have ordered something else, I blindly and systematically duplicate the selection by the most overweight male at the table; and when no such person is present, I randomly pick from the menu without reading the name of the item, under the peace of mind that Baal made the choice for me.

I think that’s a great term. The tyranny of choice. I wasn’t being boring when I chose the same thing. My brain was telling me that I should have ordered something but when I processed another option on the menu, my brain recalculated.

It’s not easy to vote against your brain’s own choices.

24 kinds of jam

This isn’t only hearsay or anecdotal evidence. In fact, there are many famous studies into the impact of having too many choices.

Sheena Iyengar, Professor of Business at Columbia University conducted the most well known test. On two consecutive Saturdays, Iyengar set up a table outside a supermarket. On both occasions, she laid out a selection of jams:

  • One week, she offered 6 kinds of jam
  • The next week, she offered 24 kinds of jam

Which one do you think had more interest?

Well, you might think that having 24 different options would be better. That’s quite a normal thing to think. After all, if you’ve got more choice, you’re likely to find something more suited to your tastes right?

Unfortunately, your brain has other ideas.

Iyengar reported that when she offered 24 flavours of jam, 60% of people took free samples of jam. But only 3% of those actually bought a jar off her.

Meanwhile, the number of people who sampled the selection of 6 jams was at 40% but 30% of the customers bought.

When you even that all out statistically (with, let’s say 100 people), 60 would stop when there was a wider sample offered, but less than 2 purchase (1.8 to be exact). When the much more select choice was laid out, 40 stopped at the table, and 12 purchased.

What does this mean for you?

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that in your day to day activity, your community or audience will respond more decisively when there is less choice for them to process.

But it also means that a little forethought about your activities could result in a much higher take up of your poll.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not always easier for a person to articulate their feelings with an unlimited number of words in a free text box.

The science says that it makes much more sense for you to spend a little bit of time thinking about the kinds of questions that you are asking in advance. Doing so will help you to narrow down the number of possible choices for your respondents – and as we saw from the few examples above, that’s a good thing!

Our two best tips for getting decisive feedback

  • Think about what you really want to know – often we can all be a little tempted to ask things for the sake of it. But what would you use the information for if you got it?
  • Try to keep the number of choices to a minimum – opinion and research about the ideal number of options for a choice varies but almost everyone agrees: between 3 and 6 options is best.