We often think that giving people more choices is better than having fewer choices.

After all, wouldn’t we all want to have the option of getting something perfectly suited to our desires, than having to settle for what is available on the shelf?

However, research has shown that if you want people to make a decision, sometimes having too many choices can make people less willing to make a decision at all.

After all, making choices is hard.

It takes cognitive effort to compare things, and our brains want to use as little energy as possible.

So while comparing two things against each other is relatively simple, when you expand the number of things which need to be compared, it can get exponentially more complicated, leading to people not wanting to make a decision at all. So they end up choosing none of the options.

This is called choice overload.

And research in the lab and in the real world backs up the fact that sometimes, having fewer choices makes people more likely to choose one of the options available.

One of the classic psychological studies looked at people in a supermarket choosing from a selection of jams.

The researchers set up two tasting displays (where people could try samples) in an upscale supermarket in California. This was the sort of supermarket known for its large selection (offering roughly 250 different varieties of mustard, 75 different varieties of olive oil, and over 300 varieties of jam). So the people visiting must surely want variety and choices.

On one tasting display were a selection of 24 gourmet jams.

On the other tasting display were only 6 jams.

People who came to either display were given a “$1 off” coupon if they purchased any of the jams after they tried them.

And the results were fascinating.

  • 3% of people who went to the display with 24 jams ended up buying one of the jams
  • 31% of people who went to the display with 6 jams ended up buying

Having a smaller selection led to 10x more people buying

It seems like having too many options to choose from resulted in people ending up not choosing any of them. Or having a smaller selection made it easier for the people to make a choice.

Since this study, dozens of other studies have also tried to test replicate the results. While one meta-analysis of choice overload in 2010 found only limited evidence for choice overload, and a lot of positive aspects of additional choices, a more recent and larger 2015 meta-analysis did indeed find strong evidence for choice overload leading to fewer options resulting in more being chosen.

This concept of choice overload is especially important in innovation and creativity work.

In order to get the resources you need for innovation projects, usually you need management to approve your request for those resources. And unfortunately, research has shown that creative ideas are especially hard for decision makers to accept.

So in order to get support for your idea or project, the request should be framed in such a way that it requires the fewest comparisons to other requests possible.

For example, innovation projects should not be requested to submit a business case, after which all business cases will be compared before a decision is made.

Instead, it is better to have a governance system in place which allows the best ideas to access resources from a budget pool, where a single decision was previously already made and does not need to be repeated.

Click here to find out how such a framework could work for your company.

The concept is equally important when figuring out what your customers want.

While marketers and Start-ups often think that customers want to know about every single feature and benefit of a product, having so much information can sometimes overwhelm the customer.

When they have too many features to think about, they sometimes need to think about whether each feature has a positive perceived value, which can be exhausting.

Additionally, in order to have an option for every possible type of customer, some companies have hundreds of versions of their product, which all make compromises to appeal to as many people as possible.

For any individual customer, selecting from all of these versions can be too hard, leading to them to make no choice at all.

In those instances, one of the most innovative things a company and team can do is to become very clear about who their ideal customer really is, and focus their product more towards the specific needs of that niche.

Not only will it make it easier to market, it will also make it easier for the customer to make a choice. After all, if they see you want to provide them with a single option which provides value to them, the decision in their minds has just become significantly easier to make.

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.