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Psychology & The Internet: Choice Overload

Origami Fox

Let’s begin with a short tale…

A fox was boasting to a cat of its clever devices for escaping its enemies.  “I have a whole bag of tricks,” he said, “which contains a hundred ways of escaping my enemies.”

“I have only one,” said the cat. “But I can generally manage with that.”

Just at that moment they heard the cry of a pack of hounds coming towards them, and the cat immediately scampered up a tree and hid herself in the boughs.

“This is my plan,” said the cat. “What are you going to do?”

The fox thought first of one way, then of another, and while he was debating, the hounds came nearer and nearer, and at last the fox in his confusion was caught up by the hounds and soon killed by the huntsmen.

Miss Puss, who had been looking on, said, “Better one safe way than a hundred on which you cannot reckon.”

The above Aesop’s Tale shows how having too many choices can lead to inaction.  Thankfully, most of our daily choices won’t put us at the mercy of a Huntsmen’s hounds but is there some relevant wisdom to be learned from this age old tale?

December and the festive period is now but a memory as we settle into a new year and an old routine.  It was forecast that £8billion would be spent online during the Christmas period accounting for a whopping third to a quarter of retail spend during the busy October to December period (These figures vary according to source though).  That’s quite a large spend but what did the consumer go through trying to make those purchase decisions?

Think back to your own Christmas shopping, some of the choices you made on what to purchase were easy (for acquaintances or that glow-in-the-dark tie for Secret Santa) while others may have been an ordeal as you attempted to decide on the perfect gift for those closest to you.

What made these decisions so difficult?  Part of the blame lies at the feet of Choice Overload.

Barry Schwartz, an American Psychologist, posits that having a greater number of choices leads towards:

  • A higher chance of regretting the ultimate decision made.
  • Or anticipating regret over our decision which becomes a major reason for not making that purchasing decision at all.

But why do we feel this regret in the first place?  One of the major contributors is that of Missed Opportunities and the concomitant tension experienced.

I’m currently in the market to upgrade my long-suffering laptop and going through all of the choices has led me towards a sense of Consumer Apathy.  Do I choose a netbook or a notebook? What screen size is best?  What about battery life? Do I save some cash and buy a lower spec CPU or splash out for the long-term and get one of the newer i5 or i7 Intel processors?  Suddenly having too much choice has crippled my ability to make a rapid online purchase and I’m likely to close all of the browser tabs and not make any purchase at all.

Any good decision begins by defining your ultimate goal(s).  This remains true when trying to decide what to purchase.  You usually want to buy something to fulfil a purpose and to meet a preset goal.  In my instance, I merely want a netbook to run Linux and therefore it doesn’t need to be cutting edge by any stretch of the imagination.

When we’re given such a large spectrum of choices to meet a single need we often begin evaluating these options, comparing them against one another and weighing up all of the various pro’s and con’s against each other.  Too many choices often muddies things and these initial goal(s) we set prior to forging down the tumultuous road of decision-making are discarded.

Regardless of whether the choices available far exceed the initial goal(s) or not, knowledge of alternative choices that are perceived to be “better” may lead to a feeling of tension.  We begin to feel a tension over which choice to take, fearing we will ultimately make a mistake leading to regret.  It is this very tension that is felt by the consumer that may lead them towards complete inaction.  By taking no action and making no decision we remove the source of the feelings of tension.  This Analysis Paralysis, unfortunately, equates to a valuable lost sale on the website.

Having too many choices also leads to mental exhaustion – another reason we often abandon pursuing the purchase and just give up.

Do I need that i7 CPU to meet my purchasing goal of running Linux? Of course not!  But I’m left knowing that a more desirable option exists thus lowering my satisfaction in the lower powered laptop despite it fully meeting my initial purchasing goal. I don’t purchase the i7 because it exceeds my initial budget and feels akin to powering a reading light using a nuclear power station.  But I also don’t purchase the lower spec CPU because I know about something “better” existing even though the lower spec meets my initial goal.  I’m now feeling anticipated regret in the lower spec machine.  I’m at a purchasing stalemate but at least my feelings of tension have been removed through inaction.

It is therefore my belief that merely providing consumers and visitors to our eCommerce websites with choice, choice and more choice does not equate to increased sales.  The trickiest element is to find that sweet spot for each client where we’re helping ease consumers through their purchasing decision.  The key is to make the consumer feel confident in their decision even if it means providing them with fewer choices.

This article kicks off a series of posts to come in 2011 where I will be applying knowledge acquired during my Psychology qualification to my other passion – computers and the Internet.  The emphasis will be on defining the Psychological term and how it may relate to the Internet.  Sometimes it may even provide solutions.  Usually it will be fuelled by Starbucks.

A fox was boasting to a cat of its clever devices for escaping its enemies. “I have a whole bag of tricks,” he said, “which contains a hundred ways of escaping my enemies.”

“I have only one,” said the cat. “But I can generally manage with that.”

Just at that moment they heard the cry of a pack of hounds coming towards them, and the cat immediately scampered up a tree and hid herself in the boughs.

“This is my plan,” said the cat. “What are you going to do?”

The fox thought first of one way, then of another, and while he was debating, the hounds came nearer and nearer, and at last the fox in his confusion was caught up by the hounds and soon killed by the huntsmen.

Miss Puss, who had been looking on, said, “Better one safe way than a hundred on which you cannot reckon.”

How can the tale of the Fox and the Cat shed some light on the choices consumers go through when deciding on their purchases?

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2 Comments

  1. Great post!

    I think “Any good decision begins by defining your ultimate goal(s)” will become my favourite quote :)

  2. Great post, finding the ‘sweet spot’ to choice is certainly key and something we will be investigating ourselves. Cart abandonment and consumer behaviour is also an area for concern and evaluation right now.

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