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Paralysed by choice?

Updated: Oct 5

There used to be this ice creamery located a street back from the beach that I frequented as a teenager. Now I am not joking when I say there was the potential to make thousands of combinations. You started with your choice of ice cream, gelato, or sorbet, before commencing the hard task of adding your mix-ins. You could pick from the chocolate variety, such as Crunchie, KitKat, Freddo, Maltesers, M&M’s, or freckles. Or maybe you were feeling the lollies, choosing from gummy bears, sour worms, marshmallows,... The list goes on.


Now thinking through the options for a task like this is not only anxiety provoking, but also involves a lot of energy, and time. You also have the potential of never really being satisfied with your order, as you would never really know if you made the right choice (looking across with jealousy and regret at a friends Oreo ice cream with Freddo’s and KitKat and thinking “Why didn’t I think of that?”).


Eventually, I just opted for the same thing every time. I can still remember my order of vanilla ice cream, with the addition of Crunchie and Maltesers.


Now, if my teenage angst at choosing ice cream does not resonate with you, and you aren’t quite getting where I am going, maybe think about the all too common experience of purchasing jeans. Skinny, relaxed, boyfriend, high-waisted, regular, bootcut? Stonewashed, acid, distressed? Or Netflix! Sitting down to choose a flick should be relaxing, however the endless scroll often proves to be anything but.


You would think that the more choice we are given, the more liberated we would feel. But often it is the opposite. With all these choices, there is still no pleasing us. Instead what we often experience is paralysis. These types of experiences are becoming harder to avoid too, as things are become more personalised and tailored to our specific tastes.


The paradox of choice

You wouldn’t be alone in thinking that the more choice the better either. This is a pretty common belief. However the paradox of choice suggests that too much choice can actually lead to unhappiness and decreased satisfaction.


Just like I started to demonstrate in my ice cream parlour example, choice overload risks;

  • A state of paralysis, as when one is presented with too many choices we can become overwhelmed, simply staring at our options, and not knowing what to pick.

  • A possible opportunity cost, wishing we had of picked one of the (many) alternatives.

  • Heightened expectations, as being presented with more options should only mean we are able to find what we really want. However, higher expectations can also mean higher levels of disappointment and regret when those expectations are not met.

Consumer behaviour

From a consumer behaviour perspective, it could be assumed that offering customers more options of a product will result in them being more likely to buy the product as they should be able to find what they are after.


Not necessarily.


To demonstrate this point, a commonly cited example is the “jam study”. Iyengar & Lepper (2000) set up a tasting booth in a grocery store offering either a limited selection of 6, or an extensive selection of 24 different flavours of jam to customers. What they found was;

  • Customers in the extensive selection condition were more attracted to the booth than customers in the limited selection condition.

  • However, when it came to sampling the jam, there was no significant difference between the two conditions

  • When it came to purchasing jam, nearly 30% of the customers in the limited selection condition went on to buy a jar of jam, as opposed to only 3% in the extensive selection condition.

In conclusion, this experiment demonstrated that while more choice can be more appealing at first, it doesn’t necessarily result in a purchase.


Getting back to fashion

Now don’t lie! We have all stood in front of our bursting wardrobes at some point and muttered (or shouted) that we have nothing to wear. We think that the more clothes we have, the happier we will be.


What about sites like ASOS or H&M? They have numerous categories, and hundreds, even thousands of products to siphon through. The experience can be pretty overwhelming. Have you ever been so overwhelmed that you simply leave the site without even making a purchase? Or on the contrary bought multiples pieces, including something that you know you will never wear again? Not an ideal situation.


So what can we do?

I don’t suggest going full Zuckerberg, but here are a few things we could try:

  • Organising your wardrobe in a way that makes it easier for you to create outfits. This could be removing and packing away your heavily seasonal clothes when they are not needed so you are not overloaded by choice. You could also try organising your garments by colour or category.

  • Get the camera out and take some photos of those outfits that you have tried and tested, and know to work and make you feel good. On those days you find yourself muttering those all too common words, just grab your phone and swipe across, picking one of those already put together outfits. This is a nice reminder that you do have things to wear (also works a treat when packing!).

  • Challenge that herd mentality, and develop a personal style. Fast fashion has changed our relationship with clothing, and not necessarily for the better. The ubiquitousness, low price, and quality of fast fashion, may be contributing to us no longer wearing clothing that are an expression of who we are. Instead we may simply be mirroring what’s on the racks of the big brands, or buying clothes because “influencer” are telling us they’re trendy. There is so much joy to be had in developing a personal style of your own. In doing so we may also slow down our consumption habits, buying less and building a wardrobe that is less “overwhelming”.

  • Maybe try writing a list and having it with you when you go shopping in-store or online. You could try being as detailed and precise as you can so you can block out the many choices that may be on offer and focus on what you really need. Maybe you are going shopping for jeans, and you know that you have certain styles of tops in certain colours that you need to pair them back with. Therefore, a pair of light denim, boyfriend jeans would be best. By having it written down on your list, you may just be less inclined to be conflicted when you see the black skinny pair.

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