Is Choice Overload Preventing You From Making Decisions?

I have a problem with extensive restaurant menus. I scan the dishes without reading, then go back to the beginning to do it all over again. Should I have the scallops or the risotto? Peas or spinach? Does either one them actually come with spinach? I can’t remember. My husband, thank goodness, will sometimes lay the menu on the table and block off large portions with his hands, limiting the options I have to chose from, freeing me from choice overload.

What Is Choice Overload?

Choice overload, a.k.a “overchoice” or “analysis paralysis” occurs when a person has a difficult time making a decision when faced with too many options. They become overwhelmed by the potential outcomes and risks of making the wrong choice rather than focusing on the benefits and advantages of making the right choice. Too many similar options therefore leads to lower satisfaction and reduced happiness.

The average person makes approximately 70 decisions daily. Each of these decisions come with options, time constraints, and opportunity costs. Some need to be made quickly while others can take weeks, or even months. With so many options available to us, we can become overwhelmed and frozen by choice overload.

Buyer’s remorse

Has this ever happened to you? You’re in the grocery store trying to select an item for a recipe, maybe a jam. In front of you are 30 jams. Some have fresh berries, low sugar, mixed fruits and countless other varieties. You pick up several jars and read the ingredients. They’re all similar. You put them down. Frustrated, you grab one, toss it in your cart, and walk away. You think you’re done until you get into your car and begin the drive home. You can’t stop thinking about the other jam! Did you chose the right one? Will it be sweet enough? Too sweet? Thick or thin enough? You focus on the qualities that you passed up.

Analysis Paralysis

Or how about this… you need a new laptop. Your current one freezes with increasing frequency then crashes, the blue screen of death. You research and find that there are, literally, hundreds of options, many seemingly similar with slight variations. You make notes. Do more research. You may even go into a store to check them out. But, in the end, you can’t decide which laptop is the best option. So you put it off until tomorrow so you can sort through a bit more information to help you to make the right decision. But in the end, you continue to put it off and tomorrow never comes. You do nothing.

Too Many Options

When faced with too many choices, we are often unable to make a decision. Some choice is good. But too much can lead us to unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

Why is this?

To begin with, making a choice means passing on ALL the other choices. If you are confronted with three potential outcomes for a decision, choosing one means passing on – or losing the option to try – two others. If, however, you are confronted with eleven potential solutions, you can still chose only one which means you must pass on ten other options, thereby increasing your loss five fold. Even if you made the same decisions in both of these situations, you would likely be less satisfied with the second scenario due to a larger sense of opportunity cost or loss.

Too many options can lead to disappointment and regret. This is the negative result of choice overload.

Studies About Choice Overload

Research suggests that people who make decisions quickly are correct as often as those who agonize over each choice. In addition, quick decision makers feel less regret. According to a study by Dr. Sheena Iyengar, Professor of Business at Columbia Business School and author of “The Art of Choosing” (2010), the average American CEO makes approximately 50% of their decisions in nine minutes or less and only 12% of their decisions require an hour or more.

Think about that. These are pretty impressive statistics. CEOs make decisions for a living yet they don’t agonize over most of them.

How many of your decisions do you make this quickly?

The jam experiment

Dr. Iyengar conducted an experiment using gourmet jams. She set an assortment of jams on a table in a high end supermarket. Some of the time she put 6 different jams on the table. Other times she displayed 24 varieties. The results were fascinating.

60% of the passersby stopped at the table wtih 24 jam optoins but only 40% stopped at the table with 6 jams.

But, of those that stopped, only 3% of the people at the 24 jam table purchased anything while 30% of those at the other table bought some product.

Buyers with less options were six times more likely to make a purchase. Buyers with more options walked away due to overchoice.

Saving for Retirement

In another study conducted by Dr. Iyengar, she analyzed the retirement plans of 1 million employees across 2,000 employers. She learned that the typical saver was less likely to enroll in their 401K plan as more fund options were added. For each 10 funds added, participation went down by 2%. That means if the employer offered their staff 50 funds, they would see 10% less participation than if they offered only 5 funds. The effort it took the employees to determine which funds they should select caused them to pass on the opportunity all together.

Reactions to Choice Overload

Choice overload applies to far more than our buying habits. It impacts our decisions about what to do, how to spend our time, who we marry or settle down with, and countless other decisions, big and small. The negative impacts vary but may include:

  • Not making any choice
  • Procrastination
  • Making the default choice, even if it may not be the best option
  • Selecting the easiest choice

In the end, we are left with some level of buyer’s remorse, thinking about the choice you didn’t make, and an overall lower sense of satisfaction and happiness with our decision.

Solutions for Choice Overload

How can you avoid the pitfalls of overchoice?

Categorize your options

The brain can much more easily review information when it is categorized into similar buckets. If you walked into a store and saw a magazine rack with hundreds of volumes spread across the shelves, you’d likely walk right by without stopping, even if you were interested in a magazine. If, however, the titles were grouped by category – sports magazine, hairstyle magazines, home decorating magazines, etc., you’d be more inclined to browse and even purchase an issue.

Use this strategy when making your own decisions. Think of your your many potential options and categorize them before selecting a few to review. If you need a new automobile, for example, consider if you want an SUV, car, truck or crossover. One you select a category, categorize again – do you want American made or an import? Continue the process until you narrow it to a few options worthy of review. Think of it like a magazine rack.

Reduce your choices

This piece of advice is almost counter-intuitive in today’s world. We believe more is better. But it’s not always true. In many cases, less is more.

When you begin your search for that new laptop, start with categories – do you want a Mac or a PC? Tablet or traditional laptop? Once you narrow it down, instead of giving yourself ten options, look at only three. This reduces the likelihood of getting overwhelmed and will facilitate a simpler decision making process. In addition, you will only have to leave two potential laptops behind which will reduce the sense of loss from choice overload.

Concretize the distinctions.

Making variables concrete allows the mind to process them in a more meaningful manner. You should apply this technique when comparing the features of competing choices.

For example, when comparing laptop weights, don’t just look at the numbers. A numerical comparison could indicate that one laptop weighs 2 lbs and the other 8 lbs. So what? Consider the implication of the weight – how will it concretely impact your life?

A two pound laptop can be tossed in a backpack, lifted with one hand and weighs about as much as two decent sized sweet potatoes. An eight pound laptop, on the other hand, can’t be tossed anywhere without doing substantial damage and weighs as much as a sack of potatoes big enough to feed a family of ten.

See the difference?

The concrete details showing the impact of the weight makes the decision easier than if you were just looking at “2 lbs” and “8 lbs” on a piece of paper.

Work your way up to the difficult choices

Begin with broader questions, or those with less options such as car, truck, SUV, or crossover? Work your way up to more difficult choices or those with more options, such as “what color do you want your SUV?” That question could have 30 answers compared to the four answers to car, truck, SUV or crossover.

Research shows that a consumer faced with too many difficult decisions up front will walk away from the purchase. Force yourself to wait to dig into the details until you have satisfied the broader questions.

The process of making each decision prepares the mind for the next one. It’s a sort of on-the-job decision making training for your brain.

Change is Hard – Setting Overchoice Aside

It’s tough to change behavior but not impossible and practice helps. Think about the decisions you’ve made recently. Try to re-imagine them through this lens – categorize your options, reduce to a few choices, concretize the comparison, then work your way up to the tough choices. Would your decision have changed?

Maybe yes, maybe no. Either way, you will have made the steps easier and reduced the opportunity cost paving the way for greater satisfaction with your decisions and less choice overload.

To hear more about choice overload, listen to a short TED talk by Dr. Sheena Iyengar or purchase her book, “The Art of Choosing”.

8 thoughts on “Is Choice Overload Preventing You From Making Decisions?

  1. Too much choice is definitely an issue in our First World these days – and that jam jar experiment was one my husband mentioned to me a while ago (and sums it all up beautifully). I think we need to consider our options, but overthinking and procrastinating from too much information is a problem that we all face – and I’m as guilty of it as anyone – especially when value for money factors into the equation – or waiting for something to come on sale….

    1. Hi Leanne, I really do try to limit myself to three options for most decisions. It makes it so much easier. There is simply too much information and “stuff” available to us.


  2. This is me to a “t”. As I read it I realised it describes both my sons too. Not a trait that I’m glad to pass on to them. Especially my second son who has too many choices because he’s bright enough to do nearly anything he wants to do. Too much choice has made him into a procrastinator which is a real shame

    1. Hi Christina, I also have a very bright child who struggles with too many options. It’s not always easy being smart!

  3. This was a fascinating read Debra! I know now why making a choice on things is so hard but your suggestions on breaking it down make sense. Many people seem to leave it to others to make a decision so that they don’t have to, and that can be annoying! I tend to procrastinate but eventually get there in the end. #mlstl

    1. Hi Debbie,
      I hadn’t thought about that point. Many people do leave decisions to others! I’m going to come back to that in another topic.
      Deb #MLSTL

  4. I knew I remembered the TED video of someone talking about too many choices…and yes, this was her.

    I think the procrastination thing catches me when I don’t want to spend ‘much money’ but I also want value for money.

    It’s a thing alright!!

    Thanks for sharing.

    Denyse #mlstl

    1. Hi Denyse, It’s a great TED talk. I highly recommend it. And I agree, it is a thing alright!

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