The Psychology of Choice

At the end of the day, advertising is all about affecting people’s choices and ensuring those choices become ingrained in our favour.


You walk into your favourite supermarket and, as you wheel your cart around going through your list, you encounter a cheerful woman at a display booth beckoning you to try some delicious jam. Why not, you think to yourself, I have a minute or two. She points to the line of six jars, and then offers you little taster spoons from several of them. Delicious, you say. You note the name of the jam and thank her before returning to your shopping.

Now imagine that in a parallel universe, your alternate self is doing exactly same thing. The only difference is that, in her universe, instead of there being six jars of jam at the booth, there are 12. But everything else is the same and, for the purposes of this thought experiment, your alternate self is identical to you in every way.

Which self is more likely to actually buy a jar of jam before leaving the supermarket?

At the end of the day, advertising is all about affecting people’s choices and ensuring those choices become ingrained in our favour.

Sheena Iyengar has been studying choice all her adult life. As a professor of psychology at Columbia University, she has pioneered the study of how and why human beings make the choices we do, and how these patterns of choice vary across cultures, genders and subject matter.

To better understand how the psychology of choice differs between Eastern and Western Europe, Professor Iyengar conducted a pioneering study in Eastern Europe in which she interviewed people who had formerly lived under communist rule, and discovered something remarkable. When respondents arrived at their interview, they were offered seven varieties of soda (such as Coke, Pepsi, Sprite, etc.) as a refreshment. However, many Eastern Europeans did not perceive this as seven choices, but as merely one: soda.

“Oh, but it doesn’t matter,” said one gentleman in Russia. “It’s all just soda. That’s just one choice.”

This is quite startling to someone from North America, who would perceive this offering as seven distinct—and probably meaningful—choices. Just look at a North American’s face next time they ask for a Coke and you give them a Sprite with a shrug, saying, “It doesn’t matter. It’s all just soda.”

You can watch Professor Iyengar’s entertaining and enlightening TED talk here:

And for those who aren’t familiar with Professor Iyengar, there’s a little surprise about her at the end of the video that you’ll find completely fascinating.

Now, back to the question at the beginning of this post. The answer, according to the research conducted by Professor Iyengar and her colleagues, is: your first self, the one presented with six choices. In many studies, it has been found that offering people too many options—such as 12 jars of jam—actually inhibits choice. Six jars is a much more comfortable number, as it gives you a genuine range of choices without making the choosing too onerous or paralyzing.

Choice is a funny thing.