Whenever I travel to the US, I get apprehensive. Not about the travel or why I’m visiting the States. No, it’s all to do with breakfast choices.
Here’s the scenario. It’s breakfast time in my hotel. I sit and the ever-so-friendly waitress asks me for my order. Apprehension starts if I request eggs. Before I first visited the US some 20 years ago, I never knew how many choices there were for eggs. Scrambled. Fried. Boiled. Poached. Sunny side up. That’s just to begin with. Then the sub-sets – easy, soft, medium, etc. And let’s not get started on the choices for toast. Or juice.
With so much (too much) to choose from, I tend to take the cowardly route and either not have breakfast at all, or order it in my room using the tick-box card you hang outside your door.
So reading a feature in the Financial Times about the agonies of too much choice makes me realize that this is actually a bit more complex:
[…] The most obvious downside of too much choice is that people feel overwhelmed and make poor choices – or even none at all. In a study carried out in a California supermarket in 2000, Professor Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and Professor Mark Lepper of Stanford University set up a tasting booth offering different types of jam.
When an impressive 24 varieties were on display, about 60 per cent of passers-by stopped at the booth – compared with just 40 per cent when six types were shown. But when it came to finally choosing a pot of jam to buy, the proportions were dramatically reversed: just 3 per cent of the visits to the 24-variety booth resulted in a purchase. Meanwhile, 30 per cent of those who visited the smaller display made a purchase, making its more limited selection far more effective at converting visits into sales.
The FT article goes into some detail about choices with other examples embracing financial planning and mobile phones. It concludes with how you can choose to make better decisions yourself by following some rules of thumb scientists have devised for making choices:
- The “Take the Best” algorithm: when faced with choosing between two options, each with its pros and cons, search for the characteristic you think correlates best with whatever is most important to you, and choose whichever option wins out according to this criterion.
- Collee’s Rule: when choosing between various options that cannot be accepted once rejected, do not accept the first one. Instead, use it to set the baseline of quality, and then accept the next offer that beats it.
- You can’t win them all: while such rules of thumb have been proved to increase the chances of making the right decision, they will not succeed every time. So accept the occasional hit in return for being right more often than not, and do not be discouraged by bad luck.
There’s my lesson for hotels and breakfast on my next trip!