How much choice do people want?

Published on Sep 24, 2015

by Dr. Duck

One of the things I’ve learned is that every time you offer a choice you paralyse some people who can’t decide if that’s what they want to do or not.
They aren’t my words. They are those of Netflix’s chief product officer, Neil Hunt, who believes it’s counterproductive to offer customers more than one method to view their television shows.

His opinion seems arrogant. It implies that customers don’t know what they want and need Netflix to decide for them.

It seems logical that providing plenty of options gives us more freedom and allows us to select the option that best suits our needs.

But how much choice do people actually want?

 

Netflix and choice overload

According to research, providing several options doesn’t always promote freedom. Too many options can cause choice overload because we can find it difficult weighing up all the pros and cons of each alternative.

Think about how people watch television. Some people endlessly scan the channels, searching for the show that’s going to match their current mood and interest.

These individuals are adopting maximising strategies, which involves maximising the chances of landing the best possible outcome. They are motivated out of fear of missing out on something.

In contrast, some individuals aren’t too concerned about what else is on. Once they find a show that’s good enough, they simply sit back and enjoy it. These individuals are adopting satisficing strategies.

So, by limiting choices, Netflix helps reduce the tension felt by those who adopt maximising strategies.

The Netflix approach will also work for individuals who adopt satisficing strategies. After all, they are satisfied more easily anyway.

 

McDonalds and single option aversion

So, it seems all we need to do is inhibit choice and we’ll all be liberated, right?

We all know consumers want choice. We don’t want to be told where to have a holiday and what colour car to buy.

When individuals are funnelled toward one option, they experience single option aversion, where they feel constrained and dissatisfied.

Many businesses make it their mission to ensure their customers can select almost anything that suits their unique needs.

Take McDonalds. Not content with cheeseburgers, Big Macs, coffee, salads, desserts, all-day breakfast, dining in, drive-through and gourmet burgers, McDonalds now allows customers to create their own unique hamburger. They can select everything from the burger bun to the type of mustard and cheese.

This McVariety allows McDonalds to remain competitive in a saturated fast food market.

 

McRegret

McDonald’s diversified menu, however, hasn’t bolstered sales.

Consumers who were once quite comfortable and familiar with the menu are now wondering if they should have tried that new make-your-own-burger. They may be left feeling as though they missed out on something that was never an issue in the past.

The consumers who try the new burgers leave wondering if spending the extra cash and time building a burger was really worth it. After all, they could have spent a similar amount on a gourmet burger at a café or restaurant.

It seems that individuals want choice but there could be a tipping point that actually ends up confusing customers.

 

A McHappy Middle Ground

Instead of limiting options, perhaps there’s another approach. In particular, research indicates it’s the way we present choices that counts rather than the number of choices per se.

For example, when the same number of choices are grouped into categories, the choices don’t feel insurmountable.

Another option is to simply present the same number of options but don’t compare them on more than a few attributes. When there are too many attributes, the decision becomes more complicated and individuals feel overwhelmed.

 

Your choice

So, how much choice do you think people want? Like Netflix, I walked you down one path to the final solution. I didn’t really give you freedom to decide. Do you want another option?

by Dr. Duck

My name is Nicholas Duck. I am a Doctor of Psychology with an interest in psychology in the workplace, film and television, the media, and the fields of emotion, unconscious, and motivation psychology. You can contact me at nick@opposite.com.au.

I am founder and principal consultant at Opposite, a consultancy that takes these applied psychological findings and helps workplaces improve.

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