Solving the Paradox of Choice


Have you ever gone to pick up a tube of toothpaste and been staggered by the wall of possibilities before you? You just wanted simple mint toothpaste, and now you have to worry about all sorts of ailments you never imagined your teeth could get. After pondering your options for a few minutes wondering what tartar is and whether you should be more worried about that or cavities, and if fluoride really does cause dementia, you finally just select the one right in front of you. Why should such a simple task be so complicated?

Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “The Paradox of Choice.” Although many brands act like there’s no such thing as too many options, studies show that consumers tend to feel overwhelmed by an excess of choice that makes them feel like they don’t have enough time or information to make the best decision. This may lead them to feel unsatisfied with their decisions, or to forgo making them altogether.

Some people blame the paradox on Capitalism. I don’t follow politics, but I’ve heard rumors that certain politicians think that central planning could solve this—assuming that a few people who are far removed from consumers and have no competition or incentive to make the best choices could somehow figure out what it is that people need. We’ve seen how that turns out.

The great thing about the (not-really) free market is that when there is a problem, there is also an incentive to solve it. It’s fascinating to see the creative ways that businesses are relieving choice paralysis.

Apple is my favorite example of a company that has understood this principle for a long time. Instead of taking the popular approach of constantly “improving” their products by adding more features and more variety, they chose to stick with a few products that they could make the highest quality. This is one of the main reasons that I bought a Macbook. Even though I probably could have gotten more quality (and a touch screen) for the same price, the challenge of sorting through all the options and the dissatisfaction from always wondering if I could have found a better deal was not worth it to me.

Another intriguing solution to the Paradox of Choice is the subscription box business model that has recently exploded. These services deliver boxes of things like makeup, razors, or gourmet food to monthly subscribers. When I first learned about this phenomenon, I wondered why so many people would want to entrust their choices to others. What if the subscription sends them something they don’t like? At first I wondered if this was an outgrowth of consumerism, where people feel like they always need to accumulate more and more stuff in order to be happy. But I don’t think that’s always true.

Now that I work for a company with a subscription box service of artisan-made products from around the world, I’ve had to think more deeply about what makes the business model so successful. Along with the convenience of home-delivery and the excitement of receiving a box full of surprises, I think the main value addition of subscription services is that they absolve the customer of the dilemma of making a choice and forever wondering if they could have found something better. It’s saying, “we’re experts on these products, and we’re confident that this is the best product for you.” Of course, the model only works if the company has strong credibility with its customers. If a brand can establish that level of trust, then it has the opportunity to provide exceptional value.

So we have subscription services succeeding where central planners never could. Isn’t that exciting?

One thought on “Solving the Paradox of Choice”

  1. That’s what people love about CSAs. That’s totally what I love about my CSA. They give me a box full of a variety of the cream of this week’s crop, and I don’t have to decide what on earth to shop for to cook this week. I just get to be creative with what the farmer (and Maryland land) gave me.

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