The burden of choice

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The burden of choice

We had guests coming over the other week, and my wife was out of snacks to serve them. She went down to the corner kirana shop to get something, and after about half an hour of hunting, returned empty-handed. “Didn’t get anything?” I asked her.

“No,” she said. “I couldn’t figure out what to get. There was so much!”
“You could have settled for something simple, like potato chips or biscuits.”

She shook her head, exasperated. “There were dozens of varieties of those, too. And a dozen companies. And there are a few varieties in plain packing. Forget it. I’ll just cook something out of what we have in the house.”

We finally served the guests a simple home-made upma. I didn’t dare suggest buying juice to accompany it.

The incident kept nagging at me. Twenty years back, you had your Parle-G and Monaco and Krackjack, maybe a couple of cream biscuits. Kids used to wait for their NRI relatives to bring back biscuits and chocolates and they would be varieties no one had heard of. We’ve come a long way since then. By all rights, my wife should have enjoyed shopping and choosing something she really liked.

But she couldn’t. In fact, she got stressed out. Not so much about making the choice, per se, but being assured that she had made the best choice.

Since when has having so much variety in life been a stressful thing? It feels like everywhere we go, there is more choice, but after some point, the choice stops making us happy.

The problem isn’t limited to snacks alone. It permeates every one of our life choices these days. Which school do I send my kids to? What company do I work for? Which college and course should I join? Which investment plan should I use? Which apartment complex should I buy into?

Argh, let me relax and watch a movie. Go to a theatre? Select one of a million TV channels? Buy a DVD? Stream on YouTube?

Want to buy clothes? First you need to decide whether you want formal-with-pinstripes, semiformal, sportswear, T-shirts with logos (and which one?), designer stuff, traditional wear, party wear...

Oh, sorry, you just wanted a shirt for the office? Here are ten thousand brands, each with infinite varieties. Did you want the style the Bollywood icons are wearing? Comfort fit? This or that style of collars and buttons? Which one of an infinite variety of colours?

Sorry, you have tons of decisions still to make, wherever you turn. What’s more, peer pressure demands not just an alright choice — we need every choice to be the perfect, optimal one.

Where has this mindset about more choice being always better sprung from? To understand where it came from and what happens as society drowns in choice, let’s see how this story has played out in the west.

The 50s and 60s were a golden time for consumers in America. Breaking free from the staid lifestyle of the World War era, Americans embraced individuality in their lives. They wanted to do something different from what their parents did, and they didn’t want to do what everyone else did.

Manufacturers responded by producing a never-before range of products, everything from clothes to potato chips became available in hundreds of variations. More choice is better, was the mantra. More choice means better quality and a better fit for what you want to do. If all the available variety isn’t enough for you, here are do-it-yourself options where you can customise things even further!

Choice overload

Not surprisingly, this trend became wearying for the end customer. People like the idea of having more choice, but it starts becoming more painful to actually make a decision. To test this hypothesis, researchers conducted an experiment with a common product, jam, in a supermarket in California.

First they set up a display table with a wide variety of jams — 24 of them. If someone stopped and sampled the jams, they got a voucher to buy more of the same product. A lot of people stopped to sample and get the voucher. But only 3 per cent of them actually bought a bottle of jam!

Then the researchers repeated this same experiment with only 6 varieties of jams. Although less people stopped to sample the products, about 30 per cent went on to buy a bottle later. That’s an astonishing 10 times difference!

Sampling something is risk-free, involving no real problem of selection. If you don’t like something, you can try another with no cost. But actually buying one of the range — essentially making a decision to put money on your choice — becomes harder with more choices.

And the situation becomes worse and worse as the choice becomes more important. Buying a car, for example, is a huge choice. Marketing departments go to extreme lengths to influence such decisions. An advertising professional put it succinctly: advertisements for luxury cars are often not to persuade people to buy their brand of car. That persuasion happens through other means. They’re for reassuring existing customers that they’ve made the right choice.

The psychological reaction to too much choice is to narrow it down using often arbitrary parameters — or to take shortcuts. We’ve seen this in full flow in the USA in all sorts of ways. Wear only black clothes. Choose a genre of film and watch only that. Never buy a fedora hat because nerds wear it. Have a favourite restaurant, and eat there always.

Richard Feynman, the illustrious physicist, talked about the problem of selecting dessert in his autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: “I got sick and tired of having to decide what kind of dessert I was going to have at the restaurant, so I decided it would always be chocolate ice cream, and never worried about it again — I had the solution to that problem.”

Choosing what to choose

Smart marketers are beginning to realise that whatever consumers may say when asked, they don’t want to have to make too many choices. In his landmark book Don’t Make Me Think, designer Steve Krug describes the art of making an effective website. His thesis is that the customer should never have to consciously hunt for what to do next.

In order to do this, he advises website builders to follow conventions, such as always having navigation options easily available, a default selection already made, and having an always-apparent “call to action” (i.e., the immediate next step, whether it’s clicking an “order now” button, or navigating to the next page).

“It doesn’t matter how many times I have to click, as long as each click is a mindless, unambiguous choice,” he says. There’s a reason why most ecommerce sites look superficially similar — they don’t want the customer to hunt for the “purchase” button.

In another example, the American paint company Glidden, in 2009, reduced the number of paint colours it offered — from over 1,000, it went down to a “mere” 282. Apple has always known about this phenomenon — you never find a huge variety of colours in iPhones and iPads. What they do instead is to create an awesome product and market it well.

Chris Anderson coined the term ‘The Long Tail’ for the small but loyal minority market for offbeat and custom products. While everyone looks at the “Long” part of that term, they forget that it’s still a “Tail”, i.e., it’s not what the majority prefer. The majority prefer to pick up some strategy like Feynman did and stick to it.

Are we heading in the same direction in India? It appears so, and it’s visible in all sorts of small things. While Bangalore has seen a proliferation of pushcarts selling “99 varieties of dosa”, most of them different permutations of the same basic fillings, the standard Masala Dosa reigns supreme.

While hundreds of films are released every year, it’s maybe a dozen that become hits — and these often star well-known faces and feature standard themes. While any number of career options are opening up for students, software/ medicine/ engineering are at the top of the totem pole like they’ve always been.

This deliberate selection of the already-popular has deep psychological roots. It’s an attempt to “play safe”, while also responding to nostalgia.

Twenty years ago, we had no cable TV or private radio channels. We only had Doordarshan and AIR. Everyone watched Chitrahaar, and everyone listened to the official news. And those official channels played a variety of entertainment that was, in retrospect, quite high quality. AIR played old songs by Geeta Dutt, as well as classical music.

Doordarshan had adaptations of Tagore plays and Premchand stories, not to mention the occasional Kurosawa or Ray movie. When cricket matches were played, you listened to the same commentary and watched the same telecast as everyone else. You either watched and listened to these, or you listened to nothing.

Today, there are hundreds of cable channels, and dozens of radio stations, not to mention the internet and YouTube. You have a choice of listening to almost anything your mind desires. And what do the most popular radio channels play? The miniscule set of 50-odd songs that have been released in the past few months.

Everyone is listening to Yo Yo Honey Singh and watching Bigg Boss. And no one/s forced us into it, we chose to listen to it. We are happy with an RJ telling us what the “top songs” are, and listening to them again and again.

The way out

Perhaps, the lesson to be learnt from that is to always think of variety and choice separately. Having a large variety is something people like — but having to make choices, again and again, is not desirable. We’re willing to not always get the best possible option, if only we aren’t burdened with the choice of selecting it, at every turn. That’s why, when life insurance agents listen to your requirements, they always propose some policy or the other, even if they still need to gather more data. That’s also why we love thali restaurants and soups-of-the-day.

But sometimes, you do feel like making that choice yourself. You don’t want to leave it to chance. What do you do then? Siddharth, a manager at a tech company, says, “I try to gather as much data as I can.

When I was trying to choose a college, I talked to people who were a little older than me and had made this choice already. I even read up blogs and articles on the net. Never mind that I didn’t know the writers of those articles, just the fact that they had made a decision helped me. And if someone had had a negative experience, it influenced my decision even if it had happened to a stranger.”

Indeed, review websites, opinion polls and recommendation services are all big deals now. Anything that gives you data to inform your decision and make the choice easier.
Take the case of selecting a restaurant for dinner. Zomato, Burrp, and  a slew of others are all sites that let the diners review restaurants. These are also some of the most downloaded apps for mobile phones, and the companies are valuated in millions within a few years of launch.

In a real-world sense, they provide almost no information other than a list of restaurants and their addresses. But, as users start giving their inputs — ratings, menu preferences, notable experiences, these apps become an easy way to make the restaurant choice easier.

Take the example of a young lady with the nickname “DC Toy Collector”. No one really knows who she is, or what she looks like. But last year, she earned as much as $4.9 million from advertising revenues from the videos she uploaded on YouTube. What are these videos? Simplicity itself: She picks up new toys from the market, and records herself “unboxing” (i.e., opening the package), and then playing with them.

The videos just show her hands, clad in a variety of rings and nail polish, as she plays with Lego sets, remote control toys, action figures, and all manner of toys. She uploads roughly a video a day. Apparently, people like the idea of actually seeing what gameplay with these toys is like, instead of buying them: these videos have been viewed an astonishing 154 million times in 2014!

But depending on recommendations and others’ choices can only be as good as the source of those choices. Crowdsourcing information can only work to some extent. Remember the “Audience Poll” option on Kaun Banega Crorepati? Ask a question about movies, or sports, and you were likely to have the right answer by a large majority. Ask about military history, say, or eminent parliamentarians, and the answer would be worse than useless. Even in something as commonplace as selecting a movie to watch, depending on others’ recommendation can be limiting.

Even with this problem, I’d have to agree with the marketing people: more choice is good. It improves our chances of getting exactly what we want. What we need to learn is to focus on the important decisions and figure out how not to be stressed by the ones that don’t matter. It’s a difficult skill, but an essential one for this new world of ours. We’ve been buying orange juice for all our guests in the past few months. It’s a relief, actually.

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