An overabundance of options in modern life has led to increased unhappiness and dissatisfaction, as our expectations have become irrationally high.
There was a time, that if you wanted a phone, you had one choice, and it came from one company. There was one model, it came in black, was installed by the company who rented it to you, and it never broke. Everyone that had one was thrilled. You either had one, or you did not. That was the extent of your choices.
Now your phone fits in your pocket, contains nearly the exhaustive knowledge of mankind, and has the ability to do everything from securing your house from intruders to ordering groceries. It can do almost anything imaginable and yet you probably don’t even really like the one you have, which is better than any other phone you’ve ever had, because it’s not as good as you think it should be.
According to studies of human behavior, if you really want to make your customers happier, offer them less.
That’s the conclusion that many leading psychologists have come to, despite the explosion of options offered to us over the past few decades. That as a society, we have become overwhelmed by choices, inundated with options. Call it the Amazonian nature of commerce, where the number of choices is seemingly endless. We are paralyzed by options.
There is a scene in the movie “Mr. Mom” (1983), Michael Keaton has taken over the home duties after being laid off at work and is attempting to go grocery shopping with three kids. He’s at the deli counter and he asks for a half-pound of cheese. The deli clerk goes through a list of options: American, cheddar, Swiss, provolone, mozzarella, muenster, Monterey Jack, Asiago, and goat. He says never mind, give me some ham. She goes through the laundry list of choices. He has no idea. It’s hopeless.
The future of retail is not more, it’s less.
The fewer options you have, the greater the confidence in your decisions, the less likelihood for regret, and the greater your opportunity for happiness.
It’s not having the most number of stores, it’s having the best selection. Curate the collection a bit, don’t just throw raw data at us. When I ask you what you recommend, don’t just read me a list of options. It’s the equivalent of asking the doctor what you should do for your ailment and he began reading a list of pros and cons of an endless variety of medicines. The side effects might be important, but what we want are answers.
The American psychologist and author Barry Schwartz writes in his book “The Paradox of Choice” that we do not enjoy greater happiness or freedom from our overabundance of choice, but rather that we have become paralyzed because of it. He gives the example of the number of choices of salad dressing in his local supermarket, which he claims is 175 varieties, and which of course, sounds great.
The problem, he explains, is that if you had only three choices, say between blue cheese, ranch, and balsamic, you’re very likely going to be happy with whatever you choose. But if you pick one out of 175, it’s very unlikely that you will be happy with your choice. The reason is that your expectations have become so high that perfection is the only thing that will satisfy you. Anything less than perfection and we begin to regret our choice, and it is this regret that limits our happiness.
If we are limited to three choices, or maybe even one choice, the blame for any dissatisfaction is credited to the system. But if we perceive that we have been given almost unlimited choice and we have chosen poorly, the only blame we can place is with ourselves.
Schwartz argued that unrealized regret cast long shadows over even our simplest of decisions, and fear of regret stymies our ability to choose wisely. One way to achieve greater satisfaction in life would be to simplify your life. Remove the number of options so that you are left with less opportunity for regret. The fewer options you have, the greater the confidence in your decisions, the less likelihood for regret, and the greater your opportunity for happiness.
One of Schwartz’s other observations about choice was that our overabundance of options led to unrealistic expectations about life in general. He used the example of denim jeans. He writes that there was a time when your options for jeans were limited to just the one brand. They didn’t fit particularly well and were not terribly comfortable, but if you kept wearing and washing them, eventually they would become moderately comfortable.
Fast forward a few decades and he was shopping for a new pair of jeans. Suddenly there weren’t just one brand or style, but hundreds. After being initially overwhelmed, he says he walked out with the best fitting pair of jeans he’d ever owned in his life but found he was less satisfied than before because now his expectations were so unbelievably high. The new jeans were better than anything he’d previously had, but they weren’t perfect. He had never expected perfection from denim before, but now that he did, he was disappointed.
The lack of choice can be a form of oppression, and it is not ideal. But an overabundance of choice is equally oppressive in that it paralyzes us, and more often than not, leads to regret as opposed to satisfaction.
In the world of advertising, we’ve learned that providing a client with a large selection of choices serves no one. It’s like trying to choose a single perfume from a selection of hundreds. If you don’t find something almost immediately, you’re done. The same is true when it comes to logo design, or brand names, photography choices, or advertising campaigns.
Most of us are a lot more like Goldilocks than we think. If we are given three to choose from, one that is too little and one that is too much, we will decide that one is just right. It doesn’t really matter what the parameters are. If you are given 20 to choose from, there is no reason not to see 20 more. It becomes endless and fruitless.
The key to making better business decisions is to limit your choices and the way to do that is to hire people who will do the hard work of curating what you see. Let someone else cull the field, using their expertise to provide a handful of options that they believe will work, then you can make the final decision based on your gut reaction.
The key to success is less, not more.
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