Chapter 9: The Psychology of Choice

Our society and world revolves around the idea of choice, the ability to pick from a seemingly endless supply of products, services, and ideas. Even the core of our economic system is rooted in the idea that consumer choice is the key deciding factor of success. This assumption has plagued businesses and psychologist for decades and has spurred much research on the effect choice has on decision making.

A major idea examined by this field involves how the number of options presented can influence the outcome of a decision. Although research has been going on in this field for a number of decades the quantity and quality of discussion has significantly ramped up from the turn of the millenia. In a famous research study often referred to as the “Jam Study” by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper it was demonstrated that more choice actually seems to be detrimental to the consumer. In this study booths were setup in a grocery store with one displaying six flavors of jam while the other had 24. The main goal was to determine the customer’s motivation when first seeing the booth and then their later purchasing behavior in regards to the jam. The study raised some hypothetical explanations like how the added effort of deciding which is best acts as a deterrent for potential customers. Barry Schwartz in his book “The paradox of choice” also flushed out the idea of consumer choice and developed much of the terminology used in the field today such as “choice overload” and “voluntary simplicity”. In a meta analysis from 2010 by Scheibehenne, Greifeneder, and Todd this idea of “overchoice” was put into question from many different studies. One such study was titled “The Influence of Product Variety on Brand Perception and Choice” and showed through multiple studies how choice variety positively influences the perceived quality of a choice. The main take away from the study however is how in order to get these results the choices must be clearly differentiable, that is to say, there must be a clear distinction between the choices in order to lessen the burden on the individual choosing. (Berger, Draganska, Simonson)

Another study that went against the choice overload theory was a study by John Hutchinson titled “Is more choice always desirable?” from 2005. In it Hutchinson makes the point that by having more options all in the same physical location consumers are better able to see the relative advantages between many products quickly thus easing the burden on the customer. This study exposes another major idea in the psychology of choice – the idea that context can be used to alter the decision making process of customers. The most critically examined study on this topic was done by Tversky and Kahneman in an article titled “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice” where they discuss how “framing” contributes to the overall psychological impact of a group of options. For example, if there was a sign that said that a small beverage was one dollar, a medium was two dollars, and the large was two dollars and twenty five cents more people would be inclined to pick the large drink even though it is more expensive simply because relative to the other prices it is “cheaper.” Additional research by Kahn and Moore titled “Experiments in Constrained Choice” was based off of Tversky’s research and illustrates how the individual choosing from options can constrain their own set of choices through preference. Specifically the study focused on how two similar brands and one dissimilar brand and how individuals should be more inclined to choose the dissimilar brand. Their findings however countered the theory and individuals actually ended up choosing one of the two similarly  branded items more frequently. By having a large variety Kahn and Moore argue that it creates the perception of choice while still directing the choices of individuals.

Overall, the psychology of choice and how it is altered by so many varying factors illustrates just how complex and multi-faceted decision making is in the brain. The fact that something so seemingly obvious about choices like “more is better” could be wrong shows that there is much more to learn in regards to the inner workings of the brain. The dizzying array of research, most of which is surprisingly done within the past 15 years demonstrates the ongoing demand by companies and researchers to understand more about this sector of human psychology. The “Jam Study” which was the spark igniting this rally against choice variety and the subsequent studies all providing evidence against choice overload demonstrates the vitality of this field and the ongoing interest in this specific space. In general, this is the type of psychology that sticks with you throughout your life, the applications of it appear everywhere in our culture and economy that it almost feels obvious after researching it.

– Michael Pedersen

Berger, Jonah, Michaela Draganska, and Itamar Simonson. “The Influence of Product Variety on Brand Perception and Choice.” Marketing Science. 26.4 (2007): 460-472. Print.

Iyengar, SS, and MR Lepper. “When Choice Is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 79.6 (2000): 995-1006. Print.

Kahn, Barbara, William L. Moore, and Rashi Glazer. “Experiments in Constrained Choice.” Journal of Consumer Research. 14.1 (1987). Print.

Hutchinson, John M. C. “Is More Choice Always Desirable? Evidence and Arguments from Leks, Food Selection, and Environmental Enrichment.” Biological Reviews. 80.1 (2005): 73-92. Print.

Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice”. Science 211.4481 (1981): 453–458. Web…

SCHEIBEHENNE, BENJAMIN, RAINER GREIFENEDER, and PETER M. TODD. “Can There Ever Be Too Many Options? a Meta-Analytic Review of Choice Overload.” Journal of Consumer Research. 37.3 (2010). Print.

Schwartz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: Ecco, 2004. Print.


One thought on “Chapter 9: The Psychology of Choice

  1. slaudeman says:

    Hi Michael,

    You chose a very controversial piece to write about – marketing decisions and the unconscious choice are always around us and in the way that we perceive the world. I think that it is especially important to talk about in regards to marketing and product choices, which you have done. But I really like the idea that you had to address the quantity. It makes sense that more choices would mean that the customers or consumers would have to make a harder decision, but it also stands to reason that with more selection, there is a lower probability of one brand being a clear favorite. I wonder if this is also a reason that some stores carry fewer varieties.

    You also address the importance of context, which I think is interesting. The fact that humans seek out the dissimilar object in a set is fairly common – we are used to being exposed to math problems and all manner of puzzles that ask us to “find which thing doesn’t belong” from an early age. Perhaps this ingrained behavior is part of that? Or is it just the gut reaction to what appears to be a better deal? You have done a very good job of giving a brief introduction and constructing some questions that could be used to better address the topics you present. I especially like the way you close your post by talking about the way that this particular topic is of interest to our culture. I think it is important to note that while it seems to be obvious after researching it, most people probably never even think about the idea that our choices are being manipulated.

    -Sara Laudeman


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