The famous ‘Jam Experiment’

Psychologists Iyengar, Jiang and Huberman hypothesized that we are more motivated when we see lots of options because we believe that our chances of finding the right one for us are increased.

However these psychologists also hypothesized that:

…the very act of making a choice from an excessive number of options might result in ‘choice overload’, in turn lessening the motivation to choose and in some cases resulting in failure to choose at all.

Put simply, seeing more options attracts our attention and makes us excited but often results in failure to make a choice at all.

This behaviour is most famously demonstrated in the Jam Experiment (Iyengar and Lepper, 2000) in which a tasting booth for exotic jams was set up at a grocery store in California.

As customers passed the tasting booth they encountered a display with either six or 24 different flavoured jams.

The researchers counted:

  • The number of people who approached the display in each condition (6 or 24 different jams options).
  • The number of purchases made from each condition.

What they found was that the display with 24 jams was approached 150% more frequently than the display with only six jams.

However, when they considered the number of purchases made they discovered that 30% of people purchased from the ‘six-jam display’ while only 3% purchased from the ’24-jam’ display.

The findings from this study show that whilst an extensive array of options can at first seem highly appealing to consumers it can actually reduce subsequent motivation to make a choice and commit to a purchase.

This behaviour can be explained in part by what is known as ‘Cognitive Load’: the demand placed on our working memory.

Deck and Jahedi (2013) write in their paper:

The effect of cognitive load on economic decision making is that people tend to become increasingly risk averse under conditions of high cognitive load.

Cognitive load in the case of the jam experiment is the mental burden felt by consumers when presented with so many choices of jam and the subsequent difficulty of having to compare and choose between them.

In the ’24 jam’ condition, more people simply gave up and chose to walk away thereby avoiding the risk of making the wrong decision altogether.

The Godiva chocolate experiment

This ‘choice-overload’ hypothesis was further explored by Iyengar and Lepper (2000) with their ‘Godiva Chocolate’ experiment. In this experiment one group of participants were asked to choose from a limited selection of 6 chocolates while another group were asked to choose from an extensive selection of 30.

Unlike the jam experiment, participants weren’t just measured solely on their behaviour. They were asked qualitative questions before selection, during selection and after tasting their selection.

This difference in experiment design is important because it adds a layer of qualitative insight which helps to explain why the choice seems harder when more options are present and why this can result in failure to make any choice at all.

  1. Before selection they were asked to predict how satisfied they would be with their choice:  ‘satisfactory’ or ‘among the best’.
  2. During selection they were asked to provide ratings of their enjoyment, difficulty and frustration experienced during the choice-making process.
  3. And finally, after tasting their chocolates they were asked to provide ratings describing their subsequent satisfaction or regret.

This is what the researchers discovered:

  • The group who were asked to select from a display of 30 chocolates reported enjoying the process more than the group selecting from the display of only six.
  • Subsequently however, participants choosing from the selection of 6 expressed more satisfaction with their choice and were more likely to choose their selection again, as compared to participants choosing from a selection the 30.

This is what they concluded:

Collectively, these results suggest that choosers may experience frustration with complex choice-making processes.Also, that dissatisfaction with their choices – stemming from greater feelings of responsibility for the choices they make, may lead to a lower willingness to commit to one choice.

This behaviour might help to explain cart abandonment

My own hypothesis here is that if you ask your visitors to ‘add to cart’ from a vast array of simultaneously presented options they will feel a greater sense of responsibility and mental fatigue as they attempt to move forward into the checkout process.

It follows that this can spawn a nagging sense of doubt that leaves prospects feeling like they should do more research to better understand the options they overlooked to reaffirm that the selection they have made was not made in haste and was in fact the right one for them.

The result? Cart abandonment.

Decision making can be hindered by perceived risks

A vast number of experts in the fields of both psychology and behavioural economics have concluded that choice overload or ‘paralysis’ may be further exacerbated in situations where the perceived costs or risks associated with making ‘the wrong choice’ are much higher; and/or when substantial time and effort would be required for choosers to compare all options and make a completely informed choice.

(Zuckerman et al., 1978):

The more choosers perceive their choice-making task to necessitate expert information, the more they may be inclined not to choose at all.

This last finding is quite useful as it reinforces what we already know about influencing human behaviour, namely the influence of authority.

Cialdini teaches us that we are pre-programmed to follow the edicts of a perceived authority figure and even more willing to do so when this absolves us of the responsibility for making a wholly independent decision: “the expert said it was the right choice so I obeyed.”

With these findings and hypotheses in mind, here are some suggestions for testing:

The concept of choice paralysis is important but also complex to test as it is unlikely to be a ‘simple case of showing people less options’ because your business model might not allow for something quite as straight forward.

I do however believe that it is possible to design an alternate experience which reduces the cognitive load associated with the decision making process. Your tests should include these five metrics:  the frequency with which your visitors ‘add to cart’, subsequent cart abandonment, conversion rate, average order value and revenue per visitor.

Here are some ideas to get started with:

  • Reduce the number of choices you present simultaneously.
  • Reduce the complexity of the choice by limiting the number of ‘points of comparison’ within each option and making comparable items directly comparable.
  • Absolve visitors of the ‘responsibility of choice’ by providing an authoritative recommendation or social proof.
  • De-risk the choice by providing post-purchase ‘undo’ or escape clauses such as guarantees and returns policies.

As an interesting aside, energy companies are about to fulfil some of these recommendations by law. The Ofgen report issued Aug 2013 will require UK energy companies to limit the number of tariff options presented to customers from March 2014 onwards.

The report states that this is being done to make it simpler for consumers to understand and select the tariff that is right for them. The maximum number of tariff options presented to customers will be four.

Also, energy companies will also be required to standardise their tariff structures to enable easier comparison between providers.

I wonder how long it will be before other industries are either required to follow suit or do so willingly?