behavioral science principle #3

Choice overload

Definition

Choice overload happens when there are so many options that choosing among them can lead to indecision, anxiety, and regret.

In his TED Talk on the paradox of choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz described trying to buy a pair of jeans. He went into the store expecting to have one or two choices. Instead, he was confronted with an array of options—different fits, washes, and so on. He spent an hour trying on jeans and finally made a selection. The result surprised him:

“I walked out of the store with the best-fitting jeans I had ever had. I did better. All this choice made it possible for me to do better. But I felt worse.”

Why? Because with all the choices available to him, Schwartz’s expectations were much higher.

“I compared what I got to what I expected, and what I got was disappointing in comparison to what I expected. I had no particular expectations when [jeans] came in one flavor. But when they came in 100 flavors … one of them should’ve been perfect. And what I got was good, but it wasn’t perfect.

We’re faced with similar situations all the time, whether the choice is among 20 styles of jeans or dozens of primary care doctors. Choice overload is everywhere.

HR application

One way to combat choice overload is to lean into your role as a choice architect. Instead of presenting employees with every available option, streamline their choices so they can make better decisions.

For example, in 2014, researchers from Columbia University divided participants into two groups. They presented the first with a simplified menu of health plan options ranked by criteria. They gave the second group a list of all the health plan options arranged alphabetically. The study found that both groups were equally engaged in the process of choosing a plan, but those using the simplified menu made better choices, choosing plans that met significantly more of their self-identified insurance priorities.

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