Choice is Complicated

When I go to a restaurant, I like to order a-la-carte. Unless it’s a killer package deal, I prefer to get the appetizer, main dish and dessert of my choice for a three-course meal. Unlike me, my mom and her friends like to get prix fixe meals where all the thinking has been done for them.

Everyone has different tolerance levels for choice. I bet chefs sometimes wonder if choice should be given to those asking for their steak well done. Or check out this funny story about how the Japanese feel about a woman’s choice to drink green tea with sugar.

Choice has always been held high up as a veritable human right and part of the virtues of freedom. But is it?

The market seems to believe the more choices the merrier (consumers want their 40+ kinds of near-identical bottled water, coffee, toothpaste, etc). Then we learned that too much choice is paralyzing (the famed jam study). But wait, it’s not that choice alone is bad, it’s that what we really want is limited choices (Malcolm Gladwell makes the case around spaghetti sauces).

At the end of the day, however, we irrational human beings usually regret the choice we make and immediately think we could have made a better choice.

So what are we to do? What choice do we have?

Here are some surprising findings around our so-called freedom to choose. In fact, research has shown that we are not as free in choosing as we think.

  • Anchored: once we have set a price for something, we are swayed by that anchor independent of the choices’ merits or pitfalls, as seen in this research paper
  • Not a copycat: we have strong impulses to be unique, even if doing so goes against our real preferences, as seen in this case study on beer ordering
  • Decoy: setting up an unlikely but present choice helps to sway us to a more likeable choice, as seen in many restaurant menus that have a $45 steak item that makes everything look super cheap

The bottom line is that choice isn’t good or bad and is in fact a lot more complex in its cultural and irrational layers.