Choice Overload Hypothesis

Action & Decision-Making

Iyengar and Lepper (2000)

Does an increased number of options decrease our satisfaction with our choices?

Background

The Choice Overload Hypothesis aims to explain the paradox of “dissatisfaction in the face of opportunity” (Iyengar and Lepper, 2000). Traditional psychological theories such as Deci (1975) predict that the provision of choice increases motivation and performance. This is also in line with classic economic theories as well as mundane business and marketing practices: as the number of options increases, so does their fit with individual preferences, leading to greater satisfaction. In reality, however, opportunity can lead to dissatisfaction. The Choice Overload Hypothesis explains this phenomenon by stating that the relation between the number of options available and the satisfaction with one’s choice form an inverted-U curve. Although the addition of options initially translates into better choices, there is a point after which it has the opposite effect.

More specifically, according to Iyengar and Lepper (2000) “overchoice” can have any or all of the following effects: choice paralysis (the inability to make a choice), lower satisfaction with one’s choices, greater regret, decrease in motivation, and decrease in performance. The reason could be that “choosers in extensive-choice contexts (…) feel more responsible for the choices they make, resulting in frustration with the choice-making process and dissatisfaction with their choices.”

Interestingly, a second and opposite reason could be that “people encountering overly extensive choices use a choice-making heuristic that necessarily leads them to feel less committed to exercising their preferences.” In line with Kahneman’s (2011) Dual System Theory, a limited-choice context could mobilize system 2 and follow an “optimizing” strategy comparing all aspects of all options to make the very best choice. However, this rational approach might seem inapplicable in an  “overchoice” context, leading to the mobilization of system 1 and a more efficient “satisficing” strategy stopping at any option that seems satisfactory and good enough. Either way, choice overload decreases satisfaction, and thus potentially motivation and performance.

Participants & Procedures

197 students from Stanford University (Stanford, CA, USA).

As part of an introductory social psychology course, students were required to watch the movie Twelve Angry Men. An extra-credit assignment was then offered, which consisted in writing a 1-2 page essay. Depending on the condition, students were given either 6 (limited-choice) or 30 (extensive-choice) different essay topics. The prompts were all comparable in difficulty, and the same in the extensive-choice and in the 5 versions of the limited-choice set that were created. Two measures were used to assess participants’ subsequent motivation in the two conditions: the percentage who chose to do the extra-credit assignment, and an overall grade (ou of 10) based on the quality of the work produced, both in terms of form and content. To avoid bias, the essays were evaluated by graduate students who were blind to conditions, and even unaware of the hypothesis. Importantly, however, participants were told that their essays would not be graded and that the 2 points they could earn as extra-credit were based on completion.

Findings

As can be seen in the table below, the limited-choice condition did lead to higher participation and overall grade. The effect was small, but statistically significant. What is more, it was not explained by the students’ level of performance in the class.

ParticipationContentFormOverall Grade
Limited-choice74%8.138.048.09
Extensive-choice60%7.97.597.69

Thus, results suggest that less can be better when it comes to options. Interestingly, the same choices led to higher levels of motivation and performance when presented in a limited-choice set than in an extensive-choice set.

IA Tip

Students can modify this study by changing the type of choice asked from participants. Likewise, they may focus on the participants’ satisfaction with their choice rather than on their ensuing motivation and performance. Either way and in line with IB guidelines, we recommend that they obtain a single measurable result for each participant in each condition. Doing otherwise would complicate inferential statistics without any benefit as far as the IA is concerned.

Citation

Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995–1006.

https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.79.6.995