The Choices We Make
Like most people, I thrive when shopping for basic clothing items. Denim jeans, white shirt? Easy. When the task shifts to a new style of sweater or a pair of boots to replace old ones, I am faced with too many choices, especially when shopping at discount outlets or online.
Whether it’s lack of patience or the number of decisions required to pick a shirt from eight colors, I leave the items in my real or virtual shopping cart and never close the deal.
What is the problem of choosing one item over the another, given a larger or smaller choice set? And is there a science behind making a choice and sticking with it?
The Paradox of Choice
Sheena Iyengar, a well-known social psychologist, performed what later became a famous study about choice within Draeger’s Market, an upscale California’s grocery store. Given its wide variety of selections in mustards, mayonnaise, and vinegars, she frequented the store for their diverse samplings. Soon, she realized her purchase of any of those products never occurred.
Dr. Iyengar designed her research around two different tasting sessions with fruit jams. One offered customers a tasting of six jams, and another session offered 24. Only 40% of customers stopped to sample the six jams, but when presented with a coupon, 30% of them made a purchase. Given the larger sample size, more customers stopped for tastings, but only 3% later converted their tastings into a purchase.
“We don’t want it to be too hard or burdensome to make these choices”, says Iyengar. While more options intrigue us, we act decisively when given a smaller number of choices. This phenomenon is known as the paradox of choice.
In another renowned investigation debunking the notion that choice was motivating, employees were presented with options for a retirement savings plans. When offered less than five plan options, participation hit 75%. When presented with sixty plans, only 60% of employees participated.
For those who have experienced shopping at Trader Joe’s, their small-scale model works because shoppers know they won’t be faced with an infinite number of choices. In Cincinnati, Ohio, there is a large-format grocery store known for its hot sauce selection. While I am awed by the array of sauces, I rarely buy because I can’t decide. We want confirmation or immediate validation that we made the right choice and we do not want to be left wondering about what’s left on the shelf.
Decision Making Changes as We Age
Recently, when my Toyota Venza hit the benchmark of 200,000 miles, I contemplated buying a newer car but I don’t like car buying. It’s easier to do nothing.
According to a gerontology study by Corinna E. Lockenhoff, a gerontologist at Cornell, several factors are at play when deciding to purchase a new car. First, the buyer will decide I need a new car. The buyer undertakes research, asks questions, reviews literature online or in person, visits a car lot, determines a color, make, and model, negotiates for a price, and completes their purchase.
As we age, we relegate those details to others. We engage less in the research and ask fewer questions. We may not want to visit a dealership, search online, or drive the car. We use the help of someone close to us to help make the purchase happen, often skipping most of the process “through choice delegation, deferral, or avoidance.”
Choice delegation is well-known among those who work with loved ones to sell the family home or heirlooms or move them into living communities to benefit their lifestyle. Aging parents prefer to choose “among fewer options, review fewer pieces of information, and often make their decisions more quickly.” As we get older, we want to receive the relevant information, but become less sensitive to the sources of it. We’d like to buy a new car but would prefer to not research the particulars. We’d like to move but are overwhelmed by the logistics involved in doing so.
Why does this happen? Over our lifetime, we accumulate skills and knowledge to make sound decisions which tap into our areas of expertise. Those decisions involve less cognitive load because of our experience. Essentially, we don’t have to think so hard about them. If we had always held an interest in cars, the car buying experience is a welcome undertaking. For those who dislike the process, we gladly offload the task on someone else.
For many years, Toyota had ceased production of their Venza line. When production recently resumed, my son-in-law asked if I planned to upgrade. In the end, I kept my car for several reasons. I still didn’t like car shopping and holding onto to a working car was best for the environment. More important, the manufacturer had pared the color options from eleven, which included mine in Sunset Bronze, to seven, excluding the bronze. Some of us prefer a variety of options for what we truly value if only to replace what we are already own.
Annette Januzzi Wick is a writer, speaker, and author of I’ll Have Some of Yours, a journey of cookies and caregiving. (Three Arch Press) and is a recipient of a 2020 NSNC award. A frequent contributor to Cincinnati.com, her work has appeared in Cincinnati Magazine, nextavenue.com, Shanti Arts, 3rd Act Magazine, and others. Visit annettejwick.com to learn more.