Picking and Choosing: When choice turns a game into a grind

As I landed in Nairobi a week ago, I proceeded with my typical routine of re-entering the local context: adjust the watch, buy some airtime, buy internet bundles, call Uber, get home, etc. At the stage of buying a bundle, I noticed that instead of taking me to the typical list of choices (daily, weekly, monthly…), USSD platform led me to a “pre-choice” choice-screen with 3 new options: (1) data bundle with no expiry, (2) calls and SMS with no expiry, and (3) normal data bundle with expiry. The new collection of choices forced me to slow-down my routine for a short while, and think whether I was ever troubled by the fact that my 20-shilling daily bundle expired every night. I was not, so I proceeded with buying a normal 20-shilling bundle with expiry.
Later in the week, I ran a few experiments and realized that my 20-shilling bundle with expiry never lasts longer than a day, so now I made an informed choice of sticking with the original option. However, the incident sparked anew my interest in the overall topic of choice and the fine line between choice as an enabler of and choice as a hindrance to behavior, self-expression, and essentially the freedom of being.
Several years ago, I wrote a post on the state of financial inclusion in Nigeria. In the post, I argued that too many choices of Mobile Money (at that point, there were 12 providers) – a product/service not yet familiar to Nigerians — were stifling people’s ability to choose an option and resulting in many choosing none. Have things change since then? Have better access to the internet and endless internet-store shelves, AI, AliBaba and other novelties made us more adapt to handling multiple choices with poise and determination?
I’ve done my desk research and dug through journals and websites, and finally ran across an article by Liz Baker and Crawford Hollingworth in ResearchLive New Frontiers: When is Choice a Paradox, which referenced a multitude of interesting research, but to my mind was still too long for a general consumption and also misses a couple of really critical insights. So, I decided to summarize and clarify it for myself and anyone interested in behavioral economics and the psychology of choice.
Baker and Hollingworth start with the same question as many of us in social and commercial marketing are eager to understand: When more (choices) is truly more? And when more (choices) is definitely less? As a starting point, they do debunk the findings of the industry’s favorite study published in 2000 by Cheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper about the choice paralysis of the jam shoppers in a California supermarket (the study that I referenced in my original post). The study suggested that people offered with 4 options of jam were more likely to buy one, while people offered 12 choices were more likely to try (than those offered only 4 choices) but they conversion to buyers was much lower than those presented with only 4 options. So, are the findings still true? Baker and Hollingworth say… It depends!
And does it depend on? Three key factors – buyers, product, and the context of the purchase. So, this is a behavioral love-triangle in which the number of choices serve as a type of a mediator defining whether the overall experience is positive (a game) or negative (a grind). Neutral experiences generally go unnoticed, so we would not include them at least for now.
Let’s start with people. The studies analyzed by Baker and Hollingworth agree that more choices are a benefit when a person,
1. Is already familiar with the product, service or concept;
2. Does not have strong preferences in favor of a particular type of product, service, concept;
3. Is motivated to acquire the product, service or concept;
4. Has medium-to-high risk tolerance.
All of the above makes a lot of sense. As per #1, a person unfamiliar with the product and faced with a multitude of variations of it is forced to perform several tasks – (a) learn about the new product, (b) compare it against the alternative s/he is already using or access it’s generic benefit if the product is new, (c) learn about the variations of the product, and (4) compare the variations against each other. This is a daunting task, which might be interesting to people with no established preferences but really motivated to acquire the product and open to trying its variations even at the risk of losing money and/or time while doing that. Such people are few and far between, while the majority of us prefer to play in the familiar territory and “consume” risky experiments a teaspoon at a time.
Now, on the product/service/ – the benefit of a broad choice range is appropriate when,
1. Different variations are very distinct and can be cleanly separated from each other;
2. The UAP and ROI of each choice are easy to “calculate” – i.e., even a layman can clearly see what each choice “buys” him/her.
These also make a lot of sense – if number 15 on my choice list starts blurring with number 3, I might feel confused, tired, frustrated, stupid – none of which are motivating emotions or emotions aligned with high risk tolerance.
Finally, my favorite part is the context of the choice. I am really glad that Baker and Hollingworth brought the context into a spotlight in their post because many studies neglect to acknowledge the importance of the context when it comes to choice. So, what is important when it comes to the context of choice?
1. Time a person has to make a choice;
2. The purpose of the acquisition – routine/necessity or pleasure/luxury/status;
3. Any time of pressure associated with the act of choice – social, political, economic, personal, etc.
The interesting part about the context of choice is that all three factors are interconnected. For example, when I chose toilet paper – a routine purchase of a utilitarian/necessity product – I want to spend as little time as a can on making a choice, and I will likely be guided by an established consideration, e.g., the lowest price or the closest location of the shelf to the cashier counter; the need to choose from a range of 5 options of TP is a nuisance that diverts my time from other, more important things. When I choose a luxury car to drive around the neighborhood, choice becomes part of the enjoyable process of self-validation (I now can afford that luxury car!), forecasting of the lasting/future positive experience (I will love driving that car and/or I will love seeing neighbors being green with envy), and pressure considerations (How would this car match up to my wealthy neighbor’s choice? or Would this car damage or improve my political career?).
What does all this mean? The decision on the number of choices for a particular product/service/concept should be driven by a three-layered inquiry akin the process of understanding art:
1. What’s on the surface – What are we choosing from?
2. What’s in the mind – Who is choosing and what drives them?
3. What influences both – What is the bigger context responsible for the biases of the choice?
What’s the best approach to carry out such an inquiry? Well, my answer will always be – do not underestimate the value of a good segmentation study. While we are all enamored by numbers and their power to convince us of anything, a well-designed qualitative study resulting in a collection of personas and actionable insights on the best way to handle each personal has proven to be a powerful tool for organizations, who want to succeed in the game of choices.
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