Have It Your Way – why making decisions can be so hard

The other day I went to a bar in Stockholm, and when taking a look at the drink menu, I read names of beers I had never heard of before. It turned out that the bar had one of the world’s biggest beer assortments, with 1400 different brands (you can find the biggest one in Brussels with almost 2500 brands). In other words, the perfect place for those who enjoy a cold beer in their hand. However, when passing two men on my way to the restrooms, I heard one of them saying while looking at the menu, “It’s just too difficult to pick what beer I want”.

Situations where we have to make decisions are endless: what education to take, which telephone plan to choose, what retirement funds to invest in, or what beer to choose in a bar with 1400 brands. We are living in a Have It Your Way-society. But is there such thing as too much choice?

Imagine a normal visit to the supermarket. You are strolling down the juice-aisle where thereare over 15 different brands and flavors to choose from. You just have to pick the one you like. And if you decide to accompany your juice-purchase with a magazine you have at least 70 ones to choose from – magazines divided into categories ranging from home-styling, training and beauty to boats and computers.

According to Sheena Iyengar, a researcher at Columbia University doing research on choice and decision-making, people seem to think that more options lead to a better outcome. But is the human ability for handling choices infinite? Extensive choice seems appealing. But what do scientists have to say on the issue? I will give you an example showing that what we think is best for us may contradict with what actually makes us happy.

The More Options The Better Off We Are

A fascinating experiment, called ‘The Jam Experiment’, gives us some insight into the world of the human brain and how it makes decisions. The Jam Experiment took place in a grocery store in California where researchers placed out two tasting booths (not at the same time). The first one displayed an assortment of 6 flavors of jams. The second booth offered a more extensive assortment with 24 flavors. For the rest, the tasting booths were identical.

The researchers wanted to see whether the number of options available (number of jams) would affect people’s desire to stop and have a taste, and if the number of options would have an impact on their purchasing behavior. Intuitively, we would think that people prefer more options over few options – because a bigger assortment increases the chance of finding our favorite jam, which would naturally lead to more purchases.

The results were striking. People prefer more options over few options: significantly more people stopped at the extensive tasting booth than the more limited tasting booth. However, only 3% of those who stopped at the table with 24 flavors decided to buy jam. And 30% of those who did stop at the table with 6 flavors decided to buy jam. How come more options scared people off from purchasing.

The answer lies in something that’s called Choice-overload. Having many options to Thomas Schmallchoose from is time-consuming and overwhelming, which makes us more likely to postpone our decisions. In other words, we suffer from choice-overload. This is why it was easier for people to make a decision of which jam to buy when having only 6 options to choose from. For those who had 24 options, it became overwhelming and instead of making a decision, it was easier to not make a decision at all.

We always want to make the most optimal decision, but are not always able to evaluate what is the most optimal when facing too many options. What if another choice would have been better? We tend to continuously ask ourselves: would I be slightly happier with another job, house or partner? How do I know? How do I choose? The luxury of living in a have-it-exactly-your-way society also has a downside. An unlimited number of options  (e.g 2500 brands of beer) do not make our cognitive resources unlimited. When we have many options, the differences between them tend to get smaller, and it becomes even more difficult to compare them to each other: orange juice, or grape juice, or maybe orange-grape juice?

Sheena Iyengar says, “Choice is the only tool we have that enable us to go from who we are today to who we want to be tomorrow”. Our life is a construct of the continuous decisions we make. But maybe freedom is to be found in less, rather than more alternatives – as science here demonstrates: Less is more.

Illustration: Thomas Schmall


Interested in learning more about this topic?


Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995–1006.

One thought on “Have It Your Way – why making decisions can be so hard

  1. Pingback: For Science! Interview and Illu. « oxpal blog

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