Too Many Options: Background

I’m still thinking about the rising age of first marriages. Could it simply be caused by the multitude of choices that modern girls have available to them?

I remember back in the 70s—in high school—when read Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. (Americans were consuming large numbers of anti-consumer books back then.)  Toffler was one of the pundits warning that consumers were being paralyzed into indecision by having too many choices: he coined the term, “overchoice.”

A bit of online research turned up an article from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2000, Vol. 79, No. 6, by Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper. It made for fascinating reading. I will attempt to summarize some of their findings and then I’ll extrapolate to the question of marriage choice.

Summary of “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?”

In their summary of previous research Iyengar and Lepper point out that choice among relatively limited alternatives is more beneficial than no choice at all. Having some sort of choice is better than none from the point of view of being satisfied with the outcome.

They further noted that a large choice set could yield greater satisfaction if consumers already have strong preferences. Their example was a restaurant with an extensive menu. If each diner already has an idea of what he wants then a satisfactory choice is more likely.

Their research project was a study that compared a limited number of choices (6) and a large number of choices (24-30). They conducted three different experiments along these lines. A short summary of the results is rather interesting; please refer to the original article for more details.

In their first to study they set up a “tasting table” in a high-end grocery store. On different weekends their tables either displayed six choices of exotic jams or twenty-four choices (all from the same manufacturer). The shoppers who approached the table were offered the chance to sample as many of the different flavors as they liked and each person was given a one-dollar-off coupon toward the purchase of any flavor.

The results were quite interesting. When a large number of choices was offered, 60% of those who passed the table stopped to sample. The smaller display drew only 40% of the passers-by. By tracking the coupons, however, the researchers discovered that only 3% of the people who stopped at the large display purchased a jar of jam. Of those who stopped at the smaller display, 30% made a purchase!

The second study involved a lecture class of students offered an essay assignment for extra credit. The students were informed that the essays would not be graded – they would get the extra credit just for turning them in. About two thirds of the students were given a sheet with a choice of 30 different essay subjects. The rest of the students were given a sheet with only six choices.

The group given the larger number of choices had a 60% completion rate. Of those given six choices, fully 74% turned in their essays. For research purposes, the essays were graded by teaching assistants unaware of the experiment. The grades revealed that the students given fewer choices did higher-quality work.

The third experiment involved a taste-test of Godiva chocolates. The students involved were queried beforehand; only those inexperienced with this brand of chocolate were included in the test.

In this case there were three groups. One group was allowed to select one chocolate from among thirty different choices; the second could choose from among six samples, and the third was given no choice – a research assistant selected their sample from among the choices. This study involved the extensive use of questionnaires.

One objective measure of the process was the time required. The students with 30 choices needed an average of 24 seconds to make their decision. Those with only six choices made the decision in less than nine seconds. Not surprisingly, the thirty-sample group reported that the selection process was simultaneously more enjoyable, more difficult, and more frustrating. Both groups were equal in their perception (before tasting) that they had made a satisfactory choice.

After they had tasted their samples the no-choice group was the least satisfied, followed by the extensive-choice group. The limited-choice group, by a large margin, reported gaining the greatest enjoyment from their chocolate.

Each participant was to be paid five dollars. After the study they were offered either five dollars in cash or a five-dollar box of Godiva chocolates. 10% of the no-choice group chose the chocolates over the cash. Of the 30-sample group, 12% chose the candy. In the limited-selection group, 48% chose to take a box of chocolates rather than a $5 bill.

Spurious Correlations with Marriage (just for fun)

  1. Previous research and experiment #3 seem to indicate that having no choice doesn’t give the most satisfactory results. So much for “arranged marriages,” at least in the USA.
  2. Those given an extensive choice needed 2.7 times as long to reach a decision (experiment #3). If we assume that the majority of women (in earlier times) made their selection in four years (age 18 to 22), then “large choice” women of today would require 11 years – through age 29!
  3. A limited-choice display is much less attractive (experiment #1). 72% of female High School graduates immediately go on to college – the “large-choice display.”
  4. Of those who encountered a large-choice display, only 1.8% made a purchase. For the limited-choice display, 12% made a purchase: it was 6.7 times as effective (experiment #1). See #5, below.
  5. The small-choice sample was 4 times as effective in “making a sale” in experiment #3. U.S. women (ages 40-44) who have never had a child rose from 10% in 1976 to 18% in 2008.
  6. Having fewer choices lead to greater eating pleasure. Hmm. This would be difficult to correlate with divorce rate: how do we correct for no-fault and welfare?
  7. Having a large number of choices was more enjoyable, more difficult, and more frustrating. Sounds like hook-up culture.

I’ll post a little more analysis in a day or two.