Written by

Andrew Millar


April 5, 2007

Easter is upon us. And I’m stressed.

Not because we’ve been working like navvies over the last 4 weeks. No. I’m stressed because Easter means 4 days off. And while that might seem like me complaining about an absolute luxury I should be revelling in, my anxiety is rising.

Why? Because I have too many things to choose from.

It’s not that we are in demand for every socialite function going. We’re not A-List. We’re not Social Butterflies, though we have been doing a fair bit of that lately. (We’re not grubs either.) There’s just a mammoth list of maintenance, catch-ups, need to, like to and want to things to be done. It’s a list that would take longer than the holiday to read, let along make a choice from. That’s the problem, and by the way, the subject of a study by Sociology Professor Barry Schwartz. His thesis explores the paradox of choice and his conclusion is that being confronted with a plethora of choice leads to disappointment, anxiety and ultimately depression.

Schwartz notes that the more choices we are forced to make as consumers, the less satisfied and the less happy we are with those choices. But most of us believe that choice is great. Surely the satisfaction we get from all this choice compensates for the time we devote to making the choice. But being confronted by 50 types of soup, 30 different toothpastes, and 60 breakfast cereals is confusing and frightening. Don’t believe me? Next time you walk into a vast wine shop, just for a moment, forget the brand you normally buy and try to choose something different from the rows and rows of bottles, varieties and labels.

Schwartz dubbed the phenomenon the ‘Paradox of Choice’.

And he claims the result is twofold.

If you want to experience stress, just try and work out what all the buttons on your remote control do. I don’t think the manufacturers know what each one does! Times that by the number of remotes on the average coffee table and you have a bundle of anxiety every time you simply sit down to relax in front of the news.

Secondly, because we spend so much emotional energy in making our choice, we expect our resulting product decision to deliver perfection. And while it generally comes close, the world is not a perfect place. And the resulting disappointment is often disproportionate to the degree of imperfection we perceive. In other words, we over react.

If too much choice is bad for us, what’s it like for marketers?

For a start, ‘brand’ becomes far more important. Our bodies have a natural aversion to pain, so we gravitate towards brands we know, to make the choice less stressful. In the wine shopping example, a strong brand simplifies the choice to a selection of white, red or sparkling. We develop a range of brands and choose from them according to occasion.

But Schwartz also claims that less choice creates more value.

Take Bose as a resounding example of simplicity. The system we bought to broadcast an iPod has just two controls- volume and skip track. That’s it. No thousand button remote. No graphic equaliser. No bells. No whistles. It’s a joy to use and it commands a premium price.

Google is another perfect example. Just look at the homepages of Google, Yahoo! and MSN for an obvious example of a company that embraces principles of customer relaxation. By comparison, Google is almost zen.

And then there is Vlados Restaurant in Melbourne – a restaurant that doesn’t have menus or at least it didn’t last time I was there 20 years ago. As you walked in, the Chef make a decision as to what he was going to feed you. You could relax for the evening knowing you were in for a choice hunk of meat. I understand it is still a Melbourne institution at $75per set menu and a very limited wine list.

Andrew Millar
Creative Director