The Problems with Too Much Choice

by Colin Shaw on September 26, 2013

The Problems With Too Much Choice‘I wish I could spend less time working and more time doing what I want to do….’ Over the years I have said this many times but, as I contemplate life, often whilst fishing, I have come to realise and accept that actually this is my choice. No one forced me to do this. I may come up with great reasons as to why I have to do this; I like the money and lifestyle it brings but at the end of the day it has been my choice and I have become comfortable with that choice. I now find myself saying, “Life is full of choices” to people who are complaining about one thing or another. Let me also be very clear, for many people that genuinely don’t have a choice, some work 2 or 3 jobs just to survive. I am not talking about these people. This post is about how we make choices, why people make the choices they do and how they sometimes mask those choices with reasons/excuses and what this means in my chosen field of Customer Experience.

For instance, I could choose to move to a smaller house with a more reasonable mortgage and therefore not need as much money. I could choose to go camping rather than stay in an expensive hotel. I could choose to drive a more fuel efficient car and not pay so much for gas. Life is full of choices. I could choose to stand up right now and walk out the door, continue walking and never be seen again by my family. I don’t because I choose not to.

Life is about choices. We make them every day. If you want to know how good we are at making choices, just stand behind a line of commuters at a Starbucks sometime! But the choice line can get blurry when we look at our consequences. When we don’t like the consequences, the choice can look more like an obligation than a choice. It changes from a ‘want to’ to a ‘have to.’

The Difference Between ‘Want to’ and ‘Have to’

It was, then, interesting to read this study by a consultant and author Nir Eyal. Eyal talks in more detail about the difference between wanting and having to do something, although ‘having to’ is a relative term as we discussed. His findings are an interesting extrapolation of this concept that ties in directly with your company’s customer experience.

He reviews a study by some researchers in France where a person asks for a bus fare from strangers in a busy city center. Sometimes they just asked for money. Other times they asked for money and added the phrase “but you are free to accept or refuse”. By reminding the respondent that they had a choice, the researchers observed that people were far more likely to give more money and more generously than when the phrase wasn’t used.

In his article, Eyal talks about the psychological concept of reactance, which refers to the feeling that you are constrained by your options and thus creates a rebellious reaction. Most people experience reactance when they feel their autonomy is threatened or to put it another way, when they feel they have no other choice.

Which brings me back to the generous strangers and the bus fare. The strangers were far more generous when they were presented with an option to accept or refuse. Why? Because they felt that the assistance they gave, was a choice they made and not a demand they were obligated to meet from a complete stranger. Instead of feeling like they were required to help the stranger, they helped because they chose to do so.
I found this fascinating but upon reflection not that surprising. Has your boss ever asked for a new daily report on something you are already doing and then you grumbled about being ‘micromanaged’? Have you ever had an unkind thought for your spouse when you get a verbal ‘honey do’ list, even when every item on his or her list is on yours too?

Reactance is common. It is common in customer experience also. Customers will not enjoy an experience when they feel they have no choices to make, or control to exert over the process. This can create a negative experience for the customer and destroy value to your experience.

The Problems with Too Much Choice

If taking away choices is a bad thing, then giving more choices must be good, right? Not necessarily!

Too many choices can overwhelm a person. Cruise the aisles of your grocery store sometime and note how many options you have for various products. Psychologist Barry Schwartz for his book, The Paradox of Choice, did that with salad dressings and noted that there were over 175 different kinds in his store. That was if you didn’t count the balsamic vinegars and olive oils that were alongside the bottle choices. For an indecisive salad-eater, this amount of choice can be staggering.

Schwartz also discusses how technology has given us the ability to work anywhere, anytime. It is great to have that option in some ways, to give you the flexibility to be somewhere else but still be in contact with your work. But in other ways, this constant connection can create more choices and distract you from the choices you have already made. Potentially now, during your kid’s soccer game, you are constantly making a choice to take a call or send it to voicemail, to answer the email now or later, to reply to the text from your client or call them back later when the kids go to bed. Technology itself is creating a constant work environment that not only creates a new type of workaholic, but also distracts us from our lives with constant choices and decisions.

Schwartz questions the tenet of western society that more choice enables freedom for your citizens. He argues that too many choices have the opposite effect, that the freedom to choose can make some people give up and not choose at all. The constant decisions are paralyzing, distracting us from our lives, and creating an environment of high expectations. You can hear his entire talk here.

I run into this sort of conundrum a lot in my line of work. We get calls from clients flummoxed by the negative experiences that they are hearing of in their daily transactions. One in particular was a Russian electronics company.

We were designing a better experience for them using our journey mapping tool Moment Mapping. They wanted to know what it was about their current experience that needed improvement so we were ‘walking the experience’ in the stores. We visited one of their stores. It didn’t take me long to figure out what was contributing to their customer experience problems. On one aisle there were over 150 webcam options! Or at least, I think there were, I may have lost count.

That’s simply too many options for most people. Most consumers are not webcam experts and they don’t want to be. Comparing the sheer number of webcams would be exhausting to the average Russian consumer. They needed to simplify their offering to enable a consumer to make a choice more easily.

Choice and Customer Experience

It is true that choice is great in your life. No choice feels constraining and can make you feel like you are powerless to control your life.

It is equally true that too many choices are not great in your life. Too many choices result in paralysis, regret and unrealistic expectations. It simply overwhelms your potential to make a decision.

So what does this mean to your customer experience? Like many things, it means that you need to have choice but in moderation. There should be options, but not 150 or 175 of them. You should give your customers the right to control their experience, but you need to offer the choices within a parameter of reasonable options.

The benefits of being able to choose will minimize the creation of a rebellious feeling when the perception is that there is no other choice. The controlled group of options will give the consumer a chance to control their destiny without having to sort through every option available in the universe. In moderation, choice is a great liberator and facilitator of positive customer experiences. Unchecked, too many choices can create a stalemate between consumer and buying decisions.

I would be really interested to hear in the comments below of examples of how you use choice in your Customer Experience.

Colin Shaw is founder & CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s first organizations devoted to customer experience. Colin is an international author of four best-selling books & recognized Business Influencer by LinkedIn. Beyond Philosophy provide consulting, specialised research & training from our Global Headquarters in Tampa, Florida, USA.

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