How to deal with too many choices

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!

Financial Times | The agonies of too much choice (paid sub)

7 thoughts on “How to deal with too many choices

  1. Less is More – the Tyranny of Choice

    Neville Hobson discusses the agony of choice and outlines an FT article on the same. 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

  2. Looks like you have been visiting the States about as long as I have. I too used to worry about breakfast, in recent years though I have tried to make it a game. Can I order breakfast without the waiter/ress asking me another question. Can I define the specification so accurately that there won’t be another question. I know have a very long and detailed specification but have yet to succeed in having the waiter/ress just say ‘OK’. It’s a challenge that I am still pursuing, I will succeed (or perhaps not).

  3. When some friends from the UK crossed the pond several years ago (primarily to visit Toronto and New York), what impressed them about North American breakfasts was the fruit garnishing the plates. (They asked us whether the fruit should be eaten or just admired.)

  4. Ah, I didn’t mention the coffee, Robin!
    Graham, that’s probably indicative of more patience than I care to have at breakfast time.
    That’s another one, Judy – the fruit!

  5. Maybe that’s why American servers expect such a big gratuity 🙂
    I’ll take a buffet anyday – quick and fast, and decisions delayed until you’re looking at the food. Now overeating is a different issue . . .

  6. You would think the buffet would make choices easier, Ted. Yet the buffet spread in the last US hotel I stayed in was a bit like the jam experiment I mentioned in the post – so many choices!

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