Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Line Between Clarity and Chaos

How people choose from a large array of choices ...

"In order to read this article, you got a pointer. Whether that pointer was from a newsletter, your RSS aggregator, a blog, a search, or even just a recommendation from another human, somehow you got here. You got here despite the piles of other stories and articles competing for your attention. This one made the cut.

How did you make that decision? Can we make successful decisions, or are we doomed to indecision? What does the now-terrifying number of options available to us do to our ability to make successful decisions?

How do we, well, choose?

Boxes and Arrows talked with Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, to get insight into new filters, successful strategies, and how the silly number of choices we now have is affecting our everyday lives.

Liz Danzico: Can you choose some key concepts from your book, The Paradox of Choice, that really drove the idea?

Barry Schwartz: We’ve always taken for granted that being able to make choices is good for our well-being. And that, as it turns out, is true. We couldn’t be human if we weren’t able to make choices; trivial ones and significant ones—where to live, what kind of work to do, who to marry, what kind of cereal to buy, the whole gamut. So choice is good. And that’s a truth.

In 50 years of research and psychology, there is study after study showing that people who are able to choose X were more satisfied than people who simply got X. But in all of those studies, the contrast was always with two options. And if two options are better than no choice, then three must be better than two, and four must be better than three, and so on. But no one ever studied that. The empirical basis for the idea is that the more choice people have, the better they are. And it seems perfectly reasonable.

What economist have said, more as a matter of theory than as a matter of empirical evidence, is that if you add options, you can’t make anyone any worse off. If you’re happy alternating between Cheerios and Rice Krispies, you can just keep doing that. And, if I add 50 other cereals, you’ll ignore them. And if I don’t like Cheerios and Rice Krispies, chances are that one of those 50 cereals that have been added will be just the ticket.

Adding options is bound to make somebody better off, and further, it won’t make anybody worse off. The more choice people have, the better they are. So how could it not be true?

It’s not true.

But it’s only in the last five years that people have started doing research where instead of having two options, people have 20. Or 200. And when you cross a line (and you are probably going to ask me “where’s the line?” and I’m going to say, ”I don’t know; nobody knows”), choice goes from being beneficial to being paralyzing. So one effect of too many choices is that people can’t choose at all."    (Continued via Boxes and Arrows)    [Usability Resources]

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