When traditional economics claimed that consumers can only gain from having more choice, the supermarkets listened - just look at the explosion in breakfast cereal offerings! But psychology has gone and complicated things by showing that more choice can often leave people feeling less satisfied and less likely to make a purchase.
Consider the seminal paper by Iyengar and Lepper (pdf) that showed 30 per cent of participants offered a choice of 6 jams bought one, compared with just 3 per cent of participants offered 24 different jams. It seems we can be paralysed by having too much choice, perhaps because feeling you've made the wrong choice is unpleasant, and the more options there are, the more likely it is that we'll choose the wrong one.
But now Benjamin Scheibehenne and colleagues have waded into the topic with the claim that the "too-much-choice effect" has in fact failed to appear in many experiments, and with the real-life observation that shops that offer more consumer choice tend to be more successful.
In a series of experiments, Scheibehenne's team tested 598 participants who were asked to choose from among restaurants, charities and music downloads. Throughout, they varied factors that they hoped might explain why the too-much-choice effect sometimes occurs and sometimes doesn't.
Examples of these factors included the need to justify one's choice; the perceived variety of choice, as opposed to actual amount of choice; the mean attractiveness of a range of choices; cultural differences (they tested German and US students); and individual differences such as people's tendency to maximise - that is, their consistent desire to find the perfect option.
For most of the experiments, the too-much-choice effect wasn't actually observed and when it was, the only relevant factor which increased the effect was the need to justify one's choice.
"The fact that most of the variables that we tested were not sufficient to elicit choice overload suggests that the too-much-choice effect is less robust than previously thought," the researchers said.
Link to Barry Schwartz talking about the paradox of choice.
Scheibehenne, B., Greifeneder, R., & Todd, P. (2009). What moderates the too-much-choice effect? Psychology and Marketing, 26 (3), 229-253 DOI: 10.1002/mar.20271