The Tyranny of Choice

Choice is good right? Malcom Gladwell does a great talk on how Howard Moskowitz revolutionized marketing by understanding the dynamics of choice. His example here is spaghetti sauce. Traditional marketing strategy had been to get together focus groups and ask them what they liked in a good sauce. Then groups were asked what characteristics they liked in a sauce – should it be chunky? Zesty? Authentic Italian? The results would be tallied and a sauce that matched the most popular characteristics would be produced.

But this is wrong. The mushy middle is nobody’s favorite, it’s merely the version that the most people will tolerate. Furthermore, the characteristics don’t really match consumers’ true preferences. You’re asking for opinions which are not based on individual research. People often don’t know what they want until you tell them and they’re happier when you do. We know this in the arts. Inspire with something great and unexpected and people will cheer. Arts organizations that follow the crowd rather than lead are not only less interesting, but they get hooked into a feedback loop that leads to artistic rot.

Note in Gladwell’s story that some choice leads to happier customers. For the flip side and a cautionary tale about choice, watch sociologist Barry Shwartz’s talk about the tyranny of choice. If choice is good and we can more and more get what we want, why do we seem less satisfied with our choices? He suggests that too much choice is paralyzing and leads to incoherent decisions. Choices inflict the work of having to evaluate and choose. Choices set up higher expectations which are difficult to meet. Consequently we are less satisfied.

As an example, Schwartz cites employer 401k plans. When employees are offered few choices they invest in the programs. Plans with a high number of investment choices see much less employee participation, even though the plans directly benefit those who join. Why? Too hard to choose. Fear of making a bad choice results in paralysis.

Extrapolate this paralysis out to cultural choice. How are you sorting out the noise? We look for trusted guides who can sort it out for us and give us a framework that makes sense. Narrow the choices down to two or three best possibilities and I’m grateful.  This is a dynamic that has tangible currency in the Attention Economy.

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  1. Yannick Merlet says

    supply-side economics is all about choice, as much as possible. It has succeeded as evidenced by the low savings rate and high debt rate of the consumer. No longer is there a choice between buying and not buying, but rather what to buy. Affordability is only a secondary concern and what does not sell for two bucks sells for one at Dollar stores. Quality suffers, in fact, the shorter the life of a product the better for the seller. Quality is as bad as consumers will tolorate. Thanks for the web site. I appreciate being able to view both sides of the equation on the same page. Yannick. Peace be with you.

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