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More Is More: Why the Paradox of Choice Might Be a Myth

Psychology, choice

It could be one of the most memorable economic studies of the last half century.

Researchers presented an array of tasty jams and enticed shoppers to buy a jar. In one version, there were six varieties shown to shoppers. In another, there were 24 jams. The second, larger array attracted more traffic. But the smaller array led to ten times more purchases.

Sometimes, they concluded, too many options repel us. The researchers called it “the paradox of choice.” You might call it “feeling overwhelmed by options.” But some economists are calling it something else: “complete hogwash.”

A few years back, the FT’s Tim Harford reported that if the paradox of choice were real, it wouldn’t explain why Starbucks boasts 80,000+ drink combinations or why supermarkets offer dozens of varieties of cheese and nearly-identical yogurt and milk products. It’s possible, of course, that Starbucks and grocery stores weren’t smart about maximizing their profits. But perhaps these fabulously rich international corporations had learned a different lesson about choice: that less isn’t always more. More is more.

The non-paradox of choice got some intellectual ballast when a team of psychologists and economists tried and failed to replicate the famous jam experiment:

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