#3 Choice Paradox: Why it’s so hard to choose a hamburger

We all want more choices, right? Well, no. Not according to the data anyway. In this episode Mel and Dan look at how choice can adversely affect our ability to make decisions, as well as what good marketers can do to tip things in their favour.

Dan: 00:17 Hey, I'm Dan Monheit, co-founder of Hardhat.

Mel: 00:20 And I'm Dr. Mel Weinberg, a performance psychologist.

Dan: 00:23 And if you're listening to this podcast it's because you're interested in, why we choose what we choose ...  

Mel: 00:27 Why we think, what we think ...

Dan: 00:28 And how to exploit these things for fun and commercial gain.

Mel: 00:31 Dan, you promised me this would be ethical.

Dan: 00:33 This is totally ethical, but let's be real, that's what we're here to do.

Mel: 00:46 So I've got to tell you what happened last night.

Dan: 00:48 You sound so depressed about it.

Mel: 00:50 Well, I mean it wasn't one of my finest moments. I was hungry, so I couldn't figure out what to eat, so I thought I'll get in my car and I'll drive around. Is that not what you do when you're angry?

Dan: 01:03 No, go on.

Mel: 01:03 Alright. So I thought, there's so many options within a two kilometre radius of my place. So I just drove around to see what jumps out at me. 45 minutes later, I parked out in front of my house, went inside and boiled a can of tomato soup.

Dan: 01:18 Wow.

Mel: 01:19 Yeah.

Dan: 01:19 That's a good insight Mel.

Mel: 01:20 Yeah. That's the life of Dr. Mel.

Dan: 01:23 That's right, you had soup for dinner last night?

Mel: 01:25 Yeah.

Dan: 01:26 I'm going to tell you something, I'm going to one up here, I actually wish I'd had soup for dinner last night.

Mel: 01:31 What did you have?

Dan: 01:32 I had cereal for dinner last night. This idea of driving around is ridiculous. I don't know if you're familiar with smartphones, but you should get one. And on phones you can get things called apps. I have three such apps on my phone, I have Deliveroo, I have Foodora and I have Uber Eats. And actually a bit like you, I had to first decide which one of these three apps I want to open.

I went with Uber Eats, but then even opening Uber Eats there was literally like hundreds of choices, talk about first world problems. There are so many different types of delicious looking hamburgers for me to choose from that I actually just could not come to terms with making a decision. And by this point it was already after 8:00 and I thought forget it, I just closed the apps and went and had some cereal. Which was actually quite delicious, I think.

Mel: 02:18 Cornflakes or Weetbix?

Dan: 02:20 I actually had Muesli. Actually, my thing with cereal, I think most of us are dehydrated most of the time, we don't drink enough water. So I think having cereal does a good job of filling up and also giving you the fluids that you probably need.

Mel: 02:31 Not that should anybody should be taking dietary recommendations from the two of us right now.

Dan: 02:39 I think this is true. But anyway, I was just thinking, it seems ridiculous to complain about how hard it was to choose which dinner option I wanted out of the literally hundreds that were available to me, compared to what even just a couple of hundred years ago we would have had to go through to eat dinner.

Mel: 02:53 Like what?

Dan: 02:53 Well maybe a few thousand years ago, like Flintstones times, you had to go and hunt a Dinosaur, or whatever people hunted, and go and kill that thing and that's what you get to eat for dinner. But at least you didn't have to decide which thing you were going to have, just like you just see a thing and you hunt it down and you kill it, and guess what? Everybody is eating.

Mel: 03:13 We were such simple humans back then, weren’t we?

Dan: 03:16 I know, I can't help but think hunting a saber tooth tiger would have been easier than selecting a burger off Uber Eats.

Mel: 03:21 Well, see, you're bringing up an interesting thing there, which is this idea about choice and freedom to choose, right? Because as humans, we like the idea of having choice, right?

Dan: 03:33 Absolutely. It's a right, isn't it?

Mel: 03:35 We deserve the right to freedom and to freedom of choice. It makes us feel like we're in control of things and it makes us feel like we know our world. But there's this thing called the Choice Paradox, which a lot of people are probably familiar with and we're going to tease that out a little bit in this study ... in this episode...

Dan: 03:53 What’s not a study? Everything's a study.

Mel: 03:55 I'm such a researcher, aren’t I?

Dan: 03:58 You are.

Mel: 03:58 But we're going to tease that a little bit to help us understand why we make such poor food choices when it comes to dinner and to hopefully help us make better ones next time.

Dan: 04:07 Awesome. Okay. I think the other good thing about Choice Paradox is that it’s a thing you can say in front of other people and it's immediately going to make you sound smarter. So let's unpack exactly what it is so that you can back up the big terminology with some actual ideas. So Dr. Mel, let's start where all good things start. Surely there's some seminal piece of research that we can all look to, to learn about the choice paradox.

Mel: 04:30 In fact there is. Have you heard of the jam study?

Dan: 04:34 I have not, but I feel like I'm about to. Let's talk about the jam study.

Mel: 04:38 You know what, it's actually called the famous jam study. It's not only the jam study, it is the famous jam study.

Dan: 04:44 The most famous of all other jam studies.

Mel: 04:46 I'm not sure how much research there is the journal of jam, but this one is definitely up there. So the famous jam study was an experiment by Lyengar and Lepper back in 2000. So it's really fairly contemporary in terms of how these sorts of things go in psychology. What they did was, they set up a tasting booth at, say a local supermarket and there were two conditions that people were exposed to. At one of these tasting booths, say it was on the first weekend, there were six varieties of jam that the people could choose from and they noticed, or took note of how many of the passers by or how many of the shoppers stopped to taste these jams.

Dan: 05:21 Everybody loves tasting some free jam.

Mel: 05:22 Yeah, a sprinkle of strawberry jam, spoonful of raspberry jam and you're good to go. So then the next weekend they actually had the same tasting booth, but instead of having six jams on display, there were 24 varieties of jam.

Dan: 05:36 What how many?

Mel: 05:36 24.

Dan: 05:38 24, there's no way you could, we're not going to do this because it's going to be annoying for our listeners, but nobody can name more than seven types of jam.

Mel: 05:47 I'm pretty sure-

Dan: 05:47 We're not doing this, 24, that's ridiculous.

Mel: 05:50 What would be the most random jam?

Dan: 05:54 There would be some sort of a Goji Berry infused with some sort of ancient- I don't know. Let's keep going. Lots of jams.

Mel: 06:00 Okay. There were some exotic jam options as part of this 24 variety. So what they actually did was, they took note of how many of the passers by stopped to taste some of the jam and they found that people were more interested in the display when there was the larger variety, so for the 24 jams on display, people were going around thinking "Oh, what is this jam?"

Dan: 06:23 “I have to go and see this!”

Mel: 06:24 Yeah - “I want to have a look at what sorts of jams are there, I'm going to check this out.”

Dan: 06:27 People call in their wives and husbands, “you have to come down there are 24, you will not believe it, 24 jams, come check it out. “

Mel: 06:33 So even though more people did stop, when it actually came to purchasing behaviour, what they found was that people were much more likely to actually make a purchase of jam when they had been exposed to only 6 of the options.

Dan: 06:45 Oh, let me get this right. So 24 jams, more people stopping, six jams, less people stopping, but more people buying.

Mel: 06:52 That's it.

Dan: 06:54 Right. So that's not what we would expect, right? We would think that more choice is better and we're going to feel better about it and you get to choose one out of 24, not one out of six. So what has happened? Something has happened between jam seven and jam 24, that people have just decided to stop buying.

Mel: 07:10 Yeah. There are few things that come into play. One of the things could be, did you know what jam you were looking for in the first place? Because if you have 24 options at your disposal and you already had an idea in mind about what jam you wanted, then you're more likely to see that jam when there's 24 options on display than when there's only six. But most people stumbling across a jam display in the supermarket are willing to try new flavours, and they are not sure what they're going to come across. So what happens is they try a few, and all of a sudden they start comparing the properties of the different jams, the sweetness-

Dan: 07:43 How's the viscosity on the apricot and passion fruit?

Mel: 07:45 Yeah. All these things come into play and all of a sudden jam becomes something that's really important and our brain is trying to figure out all this new information that we have to coordinate which jam we're going to choose. And then it's like something flicks in our brain and our brain goes, hang on a second, I really don't give a stuff about jam, where's the chocolate at?

Dan: 08:04 Yeah. I don't need jam my life. Let's move on.

Mel: 08:07 So that's exactly what happened. So our brain just goes, you know what, like flip the switch because I'm not interested in this any more, stuff this.

Dan: 08:12 Like too hard, can't win, don't try.

Mel: 08:13 Absolute too hard basket. Yep.

Dan: 08:15 Right. And that's going to happen more when we're dealing with making a choice out of 24 than we're making a choice out of six.

Mel: 08:22 Yeah. And then, it goes a step further, because if even if you do make a choice and even if you actually do buy a jam from that option of 24, when you go home, you're tasting that jam but you're still thinking about all the ones that you didn't buy and all the ones that you left behind and so your actual enjoyment of the product at the end of the day is less than it would be if you would have been more secure in your choice or more definite in your choice from having a smaller option.

Dan: 08:51 So I'm eating my lunch of boysenberry jam and instead of just enjoying it, I'm actually running 23 concurrent “what if” scenarios in my brain about how much better my life could have been if I just picked standard, predictable strawberry? It's always been there for me. Or what if I'd picked raspberry it's like strawberry but just slightly more interesting.

Mel: 09:13 And all of a sudden, all of the positive things that we normally attribute to jam, all the sweetness that we know about jam gets overtaken by this horrible indecision and regret about all of the jams that we left behind.

Dan: 09:25 God we’re pathetic creatures aren’t we.

Mel: 09:26 Oh, yeah.

Dan: 09:27 And I mean, let's be honest, this probably goes some way to explaining the current divorce rate in the country, which is around about 50%. I mean, what about the thousands of other people that we've met in our lives? What if we just picked one of those instead?

Mel: 09:41 So much choice, so much regret.

Dan: 09:44 But you know what I guess is not just an affliction affecting the lowly jam buys of the world. I think it's quite well known that some of the world's greatest entrepreneurs including the late great Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, are famous for wearing the same thing day in, day out.

Mel: 10:00 People who know you might think that you're perhaps in that category as well, with your dunks, with your jeans, with your pretty standard attire here. What are you trying to do here, Dan?

Dan: 10:11 Well, I think what guys like Steve and Mark and I are trying to do here is, we acknowledge the fact that there's going to be a lot of decisions to make today and probably, I don't know, four or five of them are actually going to be really, really important decisions and it would be remiss of me, and us - I speak on behalf of my choice minimising brethren here - It'd be remiss of us to waste one of the good decisions of the day on what are we going to wear today?

Mel: 10:37 So this has absolutely nothing to do with fashion?

Dan: 10:39 No, no, no. Nothing to do with fashion.

Mel: 10:41 No. This is all about you just making smarter decisions throughout the day.

Dan: 10:44 Yeah. It's saying, look, there's going to be important decisions to make during the day. I have to reduce the decisions early on in the morning so that I can be ready and fresh for when an actual important decision turns up. So what I'm going to eat for breakfast, not such an important decision, I might as well just eat what I ate yesterday.

Mel: 11:00 Yeah, you're probably going to eat it for dinner as well.

Dan: 11:01 Well, that cuts to the core Mel. But ... what are we going to wear? Like it seems crazy that people would actually expend real mental energy considering that every morning. But, you know, to each their own ...

Mel: 11:15 Sorry, retail industry.

Dan: 11:18 You guys do a great job. Don't get me wrong. I guess, a lot of the ... Well you're probably the one to talk about literature more than I do, but I would imagine if I read literature, a lot of it would talk about how decision making abilities are like a tank of gas, or maybe like a muscle.

Mel: 11:34 Yeah. One way that you could think about these would be to think of it like a fuel tank, like a decision fuel tank. And we make sure we want to keep that full because you never know when you're going to need that.

Dan: 11:44 I'm a high octane performer. Yes.

Mel: 11:46 You want to preserve as much fuel as you can in that decision tank as possible. So yeah, I guess it makes sense that if there are things that you can reduce, that discomfort of having to choose between having to use up that fuel in that tank and save it for later, then you'll be much better placed to make better decisions later on.

Dan: 12:02 Exactly. That's what I tell people. An interesting side note on that is, a good tip for our listeners, if you guys ever end up in prison or if you're currently listening to us from prison and you find yourself eligible for a parole hearing, the research shows that you should try and get your parole hearing done in the morning. It was a very famous study, so famous that even guys like me have heard about it, done with judges in Israel. That looked at the likelihood of granting parole as the day wore on, and what the researchers found was that the earlier in the day the more likely people were to be granted parole because as the judge is still human and as they fatigued as the day wore on, it's much easier to just deny parole knowing that they would get another shot at making a decision at some future point. And it's better to make the easiest decision of all, which is, to not make a decision at all.

Mel: 12:51 So whether you're buying jam, whether you're starting up the next Facebook or really ... whether you're in some seriously big trouble and trying to apply for parole, then there's so many things that you can learn from understanding how we make decisions and the Choice Paradox itself.

Dan: 13:09 Absolutely. So if we look at this on a really tactical level, if we're designing an interface or something for a client, even just things like how many navigation items we give people, there used to be an idea that people want to see everything on the homepage, put all the navigation items up there and let the poor user workout which one of those 15 items to select. Whereas now we realised, we needed to give people fewer but better options.

Can we condense it down to three or four really good choices? And same with even things like a contact us page, do we really need to give people, call us, email us, fill out this form, get us on Facebook, get us on Twitter and get us on Google+. We just make it so hard for people. Fewer but better options is absolutely going to do the trick.

Mel: 13:52 I think one of the things that the Choice Paradox highlights is the difference between giving people actual choice and giving them the perception of choice, right? Really what people need is the illusion. They need that perception that they are able to choose should they want to, but don't give them the actual choice. It's too much.

Dan: 14:06 So who's questionably ethical now? How are we going to give people the illusion of choice. I didn't know you were in the world of trickery, Dr. Mel.

Mel: 14:13 Excuse me. I think in my time here is done...

Dan: 14:16 So no, let's finish up on this bit. So we're talking about giving people the illusion of choice? So I guess we could think about that on a website where you have a big shopping cart. I don't know, where do you buy your sneakers from?

Mel: 14:28 East Bay.

Dan: 14:29 From East Bay. All right, cool, so on East Bay we know there's thousands and thousands of different sneakers on there, but we know the site is good enough to filter you down pretty quickly to a digestible list of a few dozen results.

Mel: 14:42 While at the same time showing me how much choice that actually is available. So you get those little numbers in brackets behind each filter, which actually tell me, “now if you really want to go and look at all of the possible Nike shoes, I'll show them to you. But really I know that here are just the ones that you want.”

Dan: 14:56 Awesome. So I guess what they're doing by that is they're saying, "Look, all of the choice is here," but at the same time they're trying to not completely bamboozle you by showing you 2000 options at once, knowing that if they did that, chances are you'll just leave.

Mel: 15:08 That's right.

Dan: 15:09 Cool. So Choice Paradox, fewer but better options.

Mel: 15:12 Yeah, so what are you having for dinner tonight?

Dan: 15:15 Why do you have to do that? What are you having for dinner tonight?

Mel: 15:20 I'm probably just going to mum's house.

Dan: 15:22 For soup?

Mel: 15:24 Two options at mom's house, take it or leave it.

Dan: 15:26 Love it. All right, well, hopefully today you've learned a bit more about why we choose what we choose ...

Mel: 15:30 Why we think what we think ...

Dan: 15:31 And how to exploit these things for fun and commercial gain.