The Paradox of Choice, a Much-Maligned Good Thing

Any digital media business will automatically run with the belief that more choice is a benefit for their customers yet statistics, opinions, and news reports all seem to indicate that entrusting consumers with a decision is about as dangerous as entrusting their neck to the world’s most dedicated axeman. Consumers cannot make decisions, the mantra goes, which is why shopping sites invest so much time and money into making their choices for them, via emails and other recommendations. 


Hyperbole aside, having a choice can be simultaneously a positive and negative thing. A 2000 study from Iyengar et al that crops up online from time to time discovered that giving people a choice of six and then 24 jars of preserves reduced a customer’s likelihood of purchasing from 40% to 3%. Put another way, the vast walls of orange juice that appear in US convenience stores are actually scaring away people who came along just to purchase orange juice.

With all the above in mind, it’s hard to see how choice can serve as a positive aspect of the customer journey. However, this has no bearing on reality at all. When was the last time that a grocery store stocked only one variety of apples or a single brand of chips? Of course, the answer is “never”. The problem is that all the above is based on a subjective belief (“I cannot choose because there’s too much to choose from”), whereas business plans are drawn up around objective desires.

An Overall Need for Choice

At any point in time, collectively, viewers of Netflix will want to watch every popular series or movie on the platform. While recent trends in horror and sci-fi have influenced the company’s present direction, it makes no difference to the audience’s overall need for choice. So, while it can be difficult and even stressful for an individual to decide on which movie to watch, removing that obstacle would likely produce a slump in subscriber numbers, simply because what those people want to watch isn’t available anymore.


Video game platforms like Steam have produced plenty of memes about choice, too, especially because its popular sales mean many users’ games libraries now have hundreds of products in them. The wider gaming industry struggles with the same ‘problem’. The online casino software provider Pronet Gaming notes that its stock of games exceeds 6,500 individual titles from more than 90 different developers. This vast catalogue means that new operators can open with a huge number of experiences on the very first day.

It’s an old phrase but, in terms of shopping and entertainment, the needs of the many do outweigh the needs of the few. Kellogg’s wasn’t telling the whole truth when the company claimed that it doesn’t make cereals for “anyone else”. The smoke and mirrors are important, though, as 71% of customers resent impersonal interactions and 47% of people will retreat to Amazon if they’re not being recommended items that they like. Forbes notes that consumers will even pay with their data to be ‘known’ by a business.

Overall, it’s important to appease the collective while not forgetting the individual.

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