Dating in the peace corps
In case anyone's wondering, Iyengar says the ideal number of choices most humans can process well is somewhere between five and nine.
Which makes sense, since that's about the same number of items we can hold concurrently in our short-term memory.
Iyengar presents psychological explanations for why we glaze over at too many choices, including the fact that choice is a complex process that requires that we a) know what we want, b) understand what makes the choices different, and c) can evaluate the trade-offs involved in choice A over choice B. Doing all those mental gymnastics for 24 options is more than our brains can handle.
Ergo, our tendency to revert to a glazed-eye "tilt" mode and simply walk away.
But what really intrigues me are the implications of this process and dynamic for areas of life beyond tangible consumer products.
In a recent article called "Can There Ever Be Too Many Flowers Blooming?
Faced with a entire aisle full of toothpaste options—one whitening, one brightening, one with extra sensitivity, and one with extra fluoride and baking soda ingredients—their eyes glaze over and they stare, circuit-fried and numb, unable to choose or buy anything.
Even without the Peace Corps background, it's a consumer experience I can relate to very well.
In one experiment, researchers found that more "matches" were made if subjects had eight potential partners to choose from than if they had 20.
(This last tendency has been well documented already, with regard to cable and Internet sources people turn to for their news and information.) More importantly, if we're suffering from information overload, is there a solution? But Professor Schwartz notes that a plethora of choices makes people more reliant on filters—sources or mechanisms that sift through the pile to come up with a smaller number of options for us to contemplate (like the investment brokers who offer choice sets of three).
So perhaps, as happened in the early days of the cable television industry, the rush of "public access/everyone is a producer of content" model will be replaced by a number of filter-sources that offer more choice than the pre-cable networks but some level of organization and filtering of the chaos. Just look how many cable stations now offer the same type of reality TV shows; none of them all that worth watching.
This would drive the website advertisers crazy, of course, but if we then paid more attention to the content and ads on the few pages we scanned, it could (emphasis on could) potentially drive a more effective business model.
Give us six really good types of jam, rather than 24 almost indistinguishable choices, and we might actually buy something. That is, of course, if you're not already on overload.