How Do People Deal With Too Many Options? (A Look at The Choice Overload Hypothesis)


It can be difficult to make a choice, especially when there are many options.

We face many options each day and we make many choices, but how effectively do we deal with all these options? On one side, psychologists stress the importance of having many options to choose from as it is associated with a number of positive aspects of human functioning:

“a link between the provision of choice and increases in intrinsic motivation, perceived control, task performance, and life satisfaction … even purely illusory perceptions of choice will have powerful effects” (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000, p. 995).

On the other side, psychologists argue that too many options to choose from (choice overload) can have negative psychological consequences, such as:

“a decrease in the motivation to choose, to commit to a choice, or to make any choice at all; a decrease in preference strength and satisfaction with the chosen option; and an increase in negative emotions, including disappointment and regret.” (Scheibehenne et al., 2010, p. 409).

So on which side do we stand today? In a meta-analytic review by Scheibehenne, Greifeneder and Todd (2010), published in Journal of Consumer Research, the authors sum up the results of 50 experiments, involving over 5,000 participants in total.

Overall, the experimental results do not support the choice overload hypothesis, meaning that too many options do not necessarily influence us in a negative way. In fact, the authors found a mean effect size of zero, and no cultural differences were found.

However, single studies have reported both large positive and negative effect sizes. These single studies suggest that there are potential moderator variables which explain when and why choice overload occurs. The authors emphasize that:

“These [our] results do not rule out the possibility that the reliable occurrence of choice overload may depend on particular conditions not included in our meta-analysis.”

The following three types of moderators were identified:

  1. Assortment structure: involves (a) the ease with which options can be categorized, (b) the similarity of options and the degree to which a choice among them involves difficult trade-offs, (c) the complexity of the offered options, (d) time pressure.
  2. Decision strategies: involves (a) the degree to which a decision maker is looking for the relative best option within a set of options, (b) the tendency to search for the relative best available option, (c) the need to justify a choice, (d) the degree to which a decision maker uses heuristics.
  3. Perception of the distribution: involves the degree to which a decision maker perceives a set of options as similar in quality and attractiveness.
Photo: Lauren MacDonald