Friday, March 11, 2011

Ne quid nimis: Nothing in excess

So I've finally discovered there is a name for the affliction that I've been suffering from for nearly 40 years: "Choice Overload".  I heard this term while listening to NPR just the other day.

In a nutshell, Choice Overload is the result of being incapable of making a decision because there are too many choices, even if by making any choice, it would make your life better.  

I first encountered this dilemma, as a child, when I was taken out to dinner with my family. While studying the menu I was overwhelmed with choices.  How could I select only one? They all sounded so delicious; my mouth watered as I agonized over the menu.  In the end, my mother had to order for me as I was incapable of selecting  for myself. This scenario occurred over and over, without fail, well into my 30's.  In my mind, I had built the decision as one of life-altering importance. What if I chose the wrong one? Was I going to suffer incurable disappointment because after one bite I would be unable to gag the rest down; ruining a perfectly good dinner out?

Eventually, I overcame this particular perplexity by rationalizing that it was just one meal, not my last meal.  It also helps to snap shut the menu when I come across something that sounds good. But similar life choices seem to rear their ugly heads almost on a daily basis.  Which cereal should I buy at the grocery store?  What brand of mascara (out of the gazillion on display) would be the best?   This affliction so obviously explains my dislike of shopping of any kind.

Apparently, I am not alone.  As a wide array of choices in every category of life become more  and more frequent, marketers have discovered several tricks to nudge people like me into making a decision.  Here are a few:

- Make one of the choices more expensive than the others.  Apparently, once the audience is given a high-end choice, the medium priced choices look like more of a bargain. What at first looked too expensive now seems reasonable by comparison and people are more likely to buy it and not the cheapest (and obviously inferior) one.
-Limiting the choices. When given a choice of 24 jams, only 3% of people redeemed a coupon. When given a choice of 6 jams, 30% redeemed a coupon. Enough said.
-Context influences behavior; the name game.  This is key in marketing: naming the product. The more obscure the name, the less likely I will buy it.
- Filter complexity: remove irrelevant information. It only confuses decision-making.

Put simply, if we only had a moderate amount of choices our lives would be simple. But life is complicated. We no longer have a fork in the road; we have a six-way super-highway.  To counter Choice Overload, we need to try to refrain from piling on choices that don't need to be there.  We need to filter out fact from fiction, need from want, reality from drama.

So, shed all that unwanted baggage.  Purge your life from all the unnecessary burdens weighing you down, and in all things moderation.