Friday, 21 March 2008

Choice and the Fishbowl

(from turbojoe)

My sister, an artist, has become enamoured with the new Whole Foods Store in Kensington High Street. Not as a place to buy food though. Rather it's a food gallery to her, a place for loving shots of shiny aubergines, forests of broccoli and piles of proud lemons. I was told I had to see it. So I did.

It's beautiful; the newest museum to open in the area. Everything is plentiful. There are more than one hundred types of olive oil. Too much olive oil really. Too much to take in. As the Guardian commented there is a "tyranny of choice". This is something that I am experiencing beyond olive oil.

Choice is a very modern problem born out of a perceived modern benefit, namely that it affords personal freedom. On a personal level, I find it has a very demotivating effect. A few choices are good. My willingness to engage with those choices is healthy at this small number. Beyond that I get more and more despairing, dizzying almost, until my attention packs its bags and moves on to something else.

As usual with things like this I wanted to see what was out there in the psychological literature (this is a hangover from my experimental psychology degree and generally uncontrollable curiosity). Sure enough, the decision malaise afforded by over-choice has been empirically documented. The best place to read about it would be in this book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, or in this fun talk by the author, Barry Schwartz, at TED.

One example in the book is particularly striking. It comes from a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2000 and involved jam. Either lots of it (24 types) or a few jars (6 types) on a two tables, to be precise. Despite the 24 jams having more of a magpie effect (Ooh, look at all that jam...) it was debilitating to the decision making process (Ahh! There's too much. I can get jam some other time) selling a tenth less than the smaller collection.

Russell Brand, in his own sexually honest way, is in touch with that too: in one of his shows on TV, I remember him bemoaning how the combination of the truly vast quantities of pornography available on the Internet and tabbed browsing literally crippled his ability to 'finish', restraining because the next girl might 'just be a little better'.

One can imagine how if this sort of logic is applied to less solitary sexual pursuits, people can put off securing a partner because the choice is too large and the thought that a better one could come along is too alive in people's minds. The result is probably a growing single population. Information from the Office for National Statistics might support this: marriages are at a 110 year low (although there could just be less explicit acknowledgement of relationships).

In more commercial areas, I think that, apart from wonderful design and effortless functionality, there is significant benefit to Apple's slim number of choices both between and within products. Steve Jobs claims that Apple has less than 30 major products (and amazing this produces a $30 billion company). More specifically, for the iPod, the choice is between Shuffle, Nano, Classic and Touch and then there is usually only a binary choice when it comes to size (80Gb or 160Gb for the Classic at the time of writing this). You're not even going to break a cognitive sweat there.

In another example altogether, I have noticed how top restaurants have small menus; lesser places have tomes indexing all manner of available foods. Gordon Ramsay in his rescue-an-ailing-restaurant TV show normally always suggests trimming the menu down. Now, it's very possible that both in the Apple and menu cases, fewer options means more focus for the people behind the scenes on the creative output; nevertheless, I still think that a small choice is actually wonderfully inviting for consumers because it is so delightfully easy.

Indeed, the empirical work uncovers another great insight. After having chosen from a small number of options you are happier with your choice than had you chosen from a bigger pool. This is because of what you might call post-decision anxiety, the worry that the choice you have made is correct given all the other options available.

Schwartz explains: with so many choices it is "easy to imagine up a choice that would have been better" thus inducing regret for the choice made, which has the ultimate effect of subtracting from the satisfaction in the decision, even when the decision is a good one. This is compounded by having more factors with more choice to compare your particular decision to and more chance of being dissatisfied with that decision, so called opportunity costs.

Schwartz introduces a really lovely metaphor as way of ossifying all this: the fishbowl. The walls of the bowl are the boundaries of choice. It's not good if they are too small; there is no freedom. However, if they are too big it's, in Schwartz New York patter, "a recipe for misery and...disaster".

1 comment:

faris said...

i'm beginning to suspect that we would get on very well.