choice

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As Nudge blog readers know well, the paradox of choice is the paralysis that accompanies decision making as the number of available options increases. It’s harder to pick a prescription drug plan when there are 60 plans than when there are four.

Three marketing researchers think there’s more to the paradox of choice than, well, choice. In the paper “Variety, Vice and Virtue: How Assortment Size Influences Option Choice,” they argue that the object consumers are making a decision about matters too. Through five experiments that explore choices involving ice cream and fruit, and MP3 players and printers, they find that increasing the number of available options leads people to choose the more sensible goods–the fruit instead of the ice cream, the printer instead of the MP3 player–because they are easier to justify.

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When more choices are available, more decisions are required. Psychological research has previously noted how increasing choices can turn people off, leading them to opt-out of the decision making process. (For retailers, this phenomenon means lower sales and profits.)

Now a new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology claims that increasing the choice set saps people’s brainpower and energy more quickly. Researchers asked mall visitors to make choices about consumer goods, college courses, or class materials.

The scientists then asked each group to participate in one of two unpleasant tasks. Some were told to finish a healthy but ill-tasting drink (akin to taking ones medicine). Other participants were told to put their hands in ice water. The tasks were designed to test how the previous act of choosing, or not choosing, affected peoples’ ability to stay on task and maintain behaviors aimed at reaching a goal. Researchers found that the participants who earlier had made choices had more trouble staying focused and finishing the disagreeable but goal-focused tasks compared to the participants who initially did not have to make choices.

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