“Choice paradox”: Is less really more? (+ 5 online persuasion tips!)

Online persuasion using choice paradox

The paradox of choice, choice paradox, or choice paralysis are all names for the same and often cited online persuasion technique. It is also one of the techniques in the Wheel of Persuasion (still in beta, but who knows…  someday it will be released! [update: it has been released]) category “ratio & thoughts”. Simply said, when you offer too much choices to your customers (please choose from 206 available flights!), they will not make a decision at all. Most online marketeers therefore, recommend to their clients to stop giving so many choices to customers. But, is that the best advice you can give your clients? In this post, I will argue that there are 5  online persuasion strategies that you may want to try first to overcome the choice paradox, before advising your clients to reduce the number of choices.

We are more likely to choose when presented with fewer options to choose from  

Most people will be familiar with Barry Schwartz’s book (or most likely his TED Talk) on the paradox of choice. It is intuitively plausible to think that more choice is better. To some extent this is true. Autonomy of choice is good predictor of human well-being and happiness. For example, giving elderly people freedom of choice over how to take care of the plants achieved greater health and lived longer. However, researchers have discovered that providing too much choice leads to choice paralysis. People stop making decisions!

Jars of Jam

The classic study is as follows. Imagine a food store, with a food stall displaying jam jars. Customers were invited to taste a variety of jams. The food stall either displayed 6 jars or 24 jars of jam. Afterwards, they were invited to buy a jar of jam. Two interesting results emerged. First, displaying 24 jams attracted more customers to the food stall, supporting the idea that more choices attracts more customers (though they didn’t sample more jams). Second, displaying 24 jams lead to a significant decrease in sales (3% purchased a jar, compared to 30% with 6 jars on display).

Less is more!

So, the obvious conclusion here is that when displaying your goods in your online shop, you should not give your customers too many choices. But how many is too many? A recent meta-analysis showed that the optimal range of choice falls between 2-5. Thus, you should not present your customers with more than 5 choices. However, in reality the optimal number depends on a number of factors (e.g. time available for decision, product involvement, readiness to buy, etc.). Nevertheless, the common advice is: do not give your customers too many choices.

Less is not always more!

Is less really more?

But is that really the best advice you can give your clients? Nope (says research). The actual number of choices leading to choice paralysis depends on a number of factors. For example, the context the decision maker is in (I need to buy now, or I have plenty time), or the nature of the product (simple versus complex products) all have influence on the maximum number of choices allowed before choice paralysis occurs. Also, it is not always practical to limit the number of product choices. For example, some products you might sell just requires you to make a number of choices (e.g., travel destinations). Need to display (too) many choices? Take these 5 online persuasion tips in mind!

5 online persuasion tips to overcome choice paralysis!

  1. Categories: present your choices in categories. This helps to simplify the decision and it prevents cognitive overload. Categories also prevents choices from appearing “almost identical”, thereby giving customers the feeling that they have something to choose from. So, in the “jars of jam” study, they could have overcome choice paralysis by presenting the jams in a variety of categories. Most travel sites categorize their selection into categories. The (paradoxal?) challenge is to decide (or better, test) how many categories to use.
  2. Complexity: try to simplify the choices. If you have many choices, try making them less complex. Less complexity reduces cognitive effort needed in choosing. This one is a little bit more difficult to achieve. It requires you make your products less difficult and thus more distinctive. So, avoid displaying 10 products which look more or less identical but differ on some small aspects. It will likely lead to choice paralysis.
  3. Adequate time: be sure to give your customers adequate time to consider the different options. Again, more time to choose reduces cognitive load which in turn aids decision making. So, when you display many items on a “limited time offer”, be sure to test the whether too little time decreases conversion. Limited time offers appeals to our sense of urgency. You must act now! But, when time is too limited, I can’t possibly make a decision so I most likely make no decision at all.
  4. Present an easier choice first: have your customers make a prior commitment to your product before selecting the various products. A prior commitment (a simple “yes or no” type question) simplifies the subsequent decisions on the various options. See for example how Dell does this the first time you enter their site. It asks a small question, but it serves as an important first commitment.
  5. High quality options: if the options in the set of choices are all high quality choices, than you decrease the chance that you make a bad choice. All products must have a certain level of quality (or be presented in such a way) that customers feel reassured that no matter what they choose, it will always be a good choice.

Less is more, more or less

In conclusion, less is more seems to be a valid presumption for online persuasion. However, this does not necessarily mean that you should always strive to avoid presenting more than 3-5 choices. But, when you do need to give more choices, be sure to implement the above 5 online persuasion techniques!

If you want to find out how this or other online persuasion techniques can be applied to your website, feel free to contact me.

ps. this paper was partly based on Grant & Schwartz 2011 paper.