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When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?

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Abstract

Current psychological theory and research affirm the positive affective and motivational consequences of having personal choice. These findings have led to the popular notion that the more choice, the better-that the human ability to manage, and the human desire for, choice is unlimited. Findings from 3 experimental studies starkly challenge this implicit assumption that having more choices is necessarily more intrinsically motivating than having fewer. These experiments, which were conducted in both field and laboratory settings, show that people are more likely to purchase gourmet jams or chocolates or to undertake optional class essay assignments when offered a limited array of 6 choices rather than a more extensive array of 24 or 30 choices. Moreover, participants actually reported greater subsequent satisfaction with their selections and wrote better essays when their original set of options had been limited. Implications for future research are discussed.
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PERSONALITY PROCESSES AND INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES
When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much
of a Good Thing?
Sheena S. Iyengar
Columbia University
Mark R. Lepper
Stanford University
Current psychological theory and research affirm the positive affective and motivational consequences of
having personal choice. These findings have led to the popular notion that the more choice, the
better—that the human ability to manage, and the human desire for, choice is unlimited. Findings from 3
experimental studies starkly challenge this implicit assumption that having more choices is necessarily
more intrinsically motivating than having fewer. These experiments, which were conducted in both field
and laboratory settings, show that people are more likely to purchase gourmet jams or chocolates or to
undertake optional class essay assignments when offered a limited array of 6 choices rather than a more
extensive array of 24 or 30 choices. Moreover, participants actually reported greater subsequent
satisfaction with their selections and wrote better essays when their original set of options had been
limited. Implications for future research are discussed.
Ne quid nimis. (In all things moderation.)
—Publius Terentius Afer (Terence), c. 171 B.C.
It is a common supposition in modern society that the more
choices, the better—that the human ability to manage, and the
human desire for, choice is infinite. From classic economic theo-
ries of free enterprise, to mundane marketing practices that provide
customers with entire aisles devoted to potato chips or soft drinks,
to important life decisions in which people contemplate alternative
career options or multiple investment opportunities, this belief
pervades our institutions, norms, and customs. Ice cream parlors
compete to offer the most flavors; major fast-food chains urge us
to "Have it our way."
Sheena S. Iyengar, Graduate School of Business, Columbia University;
Mark R. Lepper, Department of Psychology, Stanford University.
We gratefully acknowledge the cooperation and assistance of Draeger's
Grocery Store located in Menlo Park, California, for generously offering
their store as a field site for conducting Study 1. Similarly, Study 2 could
not have occurred without the cooperation and support of Claude Steele at
Stanford University who generously allowed his introductory social psy-
chology course to be used as a forum for conducting this field experiment.
Further, we would like to thank the numerous graduate students in the
Department of Psychology at Stanford University and undergraduate re-
search assistants who generously dedicated their time and effort to help
conduct these studies.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Sheena
S. Iyengar, Columbia University, Graduate School of Business, Uris Hall-
Room 714, 3022 Broadway, New York, New York 10027-6902, or to Mark
R. Lepper, Department of Psychology, Jordan Hall-Building 420, Stanford
University, Stanford, California 94305-2130. Electronic mail may be sent
to ss957@columbia.edu or lepper@psych.stanford.edu.
On the face of it, this supposition seems well supported by
decades of psychological theory and research that has repeatedly
demonstrated, across many domains, a link between the provision
of choice and increases in intrinsic motivation, perceived control,
task performance, and life satisfaction (Deci, 1975, 1981; Deci &
Ryan, 1985; Glass & Singer, 1972a, 1972b; Langer & Rodin,
1976;
Rotter, 1966; Schulz & Hanusa, 1978; Taylor, 1989; Taylor
& Brown, 1988). In a typical laboratory study, the intrinsic moti-
vation of participants is compared across two conditions: one in
which participants are given a choice among half a dozen possible
activities, and a second in which participants are told by an
experimenter which specific activity to undertake (Zuckerman,
Porac, Lathin, Smith & Deci, 1978). The recurring empirical
finding from these studies is that the provision of choice increases
intrinsic motivation and enhances performance on a variety of
tasks.
Moreover, the positive consequences of choice are often appar-
ent even in contexts where the choice itself is trivial or incidental
(Cordova & Lepper, 1996; Dember, Galinsky, & Warm, 1992;
Swann & Pittman, 1977). Indeed, many important theories in
social psychology, including attribution theory (e.g., Kelley, 1967,
1973),
dissonance theory (e.g., Collins & Hoyt, 1972; Cooper &
Fazio, 1984; Linder, Cooper, & Jones, 1967), and reactance theory
(e.g., Brehm, 1966), all presume that even purely illusory percep-
tions of choice will have powerful effects (Langer, 1975; Lefcourt,
1973;
Lewin, 1952).
Although prior research has made a compelling case for the
psychological benefits of the provision of choice, there remain
some potential limitations to this literature. Consider one seem-
ingly trivial, yet potentially important, methodological character-
istic of prior studies: that the number of options presented in
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2000, Vol. 79, No. 6, 995-1006
Copyright 2000 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 0O22-3514/00/$5.O0 DOI. 10.1037//0022-3514.79.6.995
995
996
IYENGAR AND LEPPER
previous experiments was characteristically small, typically be-
tween two and six alternatives. It would appear, then, that what
prior research has actually shown is that choice among relatively
limited alternatives is more beneficial than no choice at all. Pre-
sumably, of
course,
constraints on the number of options offered in
past choice studies were imposed primarily for the sake of conve-
nience; however, real-world situations often provide more than a
limited selection, sometimes even an overwhelming number of
options. What happens when the range of alternatives becomes
larger and the differences among options become relatively small?
Certainly, there are cases when even a vast array of choices may
still have beneficial effects. Imagine a group of people who arrive
at a new restaurant, for example, all hoping to order their personal
favorite dishes. Obviously, the more items offered on the menu,
the more satisfied these customers will be, on average. More
generally, in preference-matching contexts, in which people enter
hoping to find some particular product or service they already
know themselves to prefer, larger numbers of options should
increase the likelihood that they will be successful in their search.
On the other hand, a growing body of research also suggests that
people can have difficulty managing complex choices. To begin
with, research has shown that as the attractiveness of alternatives
rises,
individuals experience conflict and as a result tend to defer
decision, search for new alternatives, choose the default option, or
simply opt not to choose (Dhar, 1997; Shafir, Simonson, & Tver-
sky, 1993; Shafir & Tversky, 1992). Furthermore, consumer re-
search suggests that as both the number of options and the infor-
mation about options increases, people tend to consider fewer
choices and to process a smaller fraction of the overall information
available regarding their choices (Hauser & Wernerfelt, 1990).
In fact, studies show that the selection, evaluation, and integra-
tion of information are all clearly affected by the available number
of options; this suggests that, as the complexity of making choices
rises, people tend to simplify their decision-making processes by
relying on simple heuristics (Payne, 1982; Payne, Bettman, &
Johnson, 1988, 1993; Timmermans, 1993; Wright, 1975). For
instance, a comparison of the decision strategies of people pre-
sented with three, six, or nine alternatives revealed that
21%
used
an elimination strategy in the case of three options, 31% used an
elimination strategy in the case of six options, and 77% used an
elimination strategy when there were nine options (Timmermans,
1993).
The increase in the percentage of participants who used an
elimination strategy as the number of alternatives grew was also
accompanied by a decrease in the percentage of information used.
This sharp decrease in the number of attributes considered as
problem complexity increases suggests that information overload
may produce a change to a noncompensatory but more efficient
decision rule.
The three studies presented in this article, therefore, examine for
the first time the possibility that there may be differential motiva-
tional consequences of encountering contexts that offer a limited
(i.e.,
psychologically manageable), versus an extensive (i.e., psy-
chologically excessive), number of choices. Specifically, the
choice overload hypothesis underlying these studies is that, al-
though the provision of extensive choices may sometimes still be
seen as initially desirable, it may also prove unexpectedly demo-
tivating in the end.
In these studies, limited-choice conditions were operationalized
as contexts that offered roughly the same number of options
(approximately six) as used in past research (e.g., Zuckerman et
al.,
1978). In comparison, extensive-choice conditions were opera-
tionalized as contexts in which participants would have some
reasonably large, but not ecologically unusual, number of options.
In addition, to provide a clear test of the choice overload
hypothesis, several additional methodological considerations
seemed important. On the one hand, to minimize the likelihood of
simple preference matching, care was taken to select contexts in
which most participants would not already have strong specific
preferences. On the other hand, to minimize the potential impor-
tance of effortful information search, care was also taken to select
tasks for which "right" and "wrong" choices would be subjective,
so that the effort involved in making a choice would be largely a
function of personal preferences. Finally, across experiments, we
sought to examine this hypothesis in both field and laboratory
settings. Using these criteria, then, the present studies tested the
hypothesis that having a limited and more manageable set of
choices may be more intrinsically motivating than having an
overly extensive set of choices.
Study 1
In this first field experiment, consumers shopping at an upscale
grocery store encountered a tasting booth that displayed either a
limited (6) or an extensive (24) selection of different flavors of
jam. The two dependent measures of customers' motivation were
their initial attraction to the tasting booth and their subsequent
purchasing behavior.
Method
Participants and Experimental Site
Study 1 involved a field experiment that examined the motivational
consequences of limited versus extensive choice in an upscale grocery
store (Draeger's Supermarket) located in Menlo Park, California. This
grocery store is of particular interest because its salient distinguishing
feature is the extraordinary selection it offers, especially when compared
with large grocery chains. For instance, Draeger's offers roughly 250
different varieties of mustard, 75 different varieties of olive oil, and over
300 varieties of jam. In addition, because of the regular presence of tasting
booths at this store, shoppers are frequently offered sample tastes of the
enormous array of available products. As a result, this store provided a
particularly conducive environment in which a naturalistic experiment that
used tasting booths could be conducted.
On two consecutive Saturdays, neither of which fell on a long holiday
weekend, a tasting booth was set up inside the grocery store. Over the
course of these two 5-hr experimental periods, the behavior of approxi-
mately 754 shoppers was observed. Among the 386 customers present in
the store during the hours when the extensive-choice booth was displayed,
only 242 actually encountered the display. Among the 368 customers
present in the store during the hours when the limited-choice booth was
displayed, only 260 actually encountered the display. By observation, the
customers who stopped at the booth were typically middle-aged Cauca-
sians;
approximately 62% of these customers were women and 38% were
men.
Product Selection
Exotic jams. Before the study, the number of brands and selections
within a number of product categories were carefully catalogued. On the
basis of the following criteria, the product selected as the experimental
WHEN CHOICE
IS
DEMOTIVATING
997
stimulus was Wilkin
&
Sons (Purveyors
to
Her Majesty
the
Queen) jams.
To control
for
potential differences that might arise from different types
of
packaging or advertising,
it
was necessary to find one brand for which there
was
a
sufficiently large variety
to
constitute an extensive-choice condition.
(In total, Wilkin
&
Sons
has 28
varieties
of
jams.)
In
addition, careful
attention
was
given
to
selecting
a
product with which most consumers
would
be
familiar,
yet not so
familiar that preferences would already
be
firmly established. Hence, to ensure that potential customers would not just
reach
for the
more traditional flavors such
as
strawberry
and
raspberry,
these common flavors were removed from
the set of
28, leaving
a
choice
set
of 24
more exotic flavors. Finally, because
the
dependent measure
involved purchasing behavior,
a
relatively inexpensive product needed
to
be chosen.
The
price
of
Wilkin
&
Sons jams ranged from
4 to 6
dollars.
Jam preferences survey. To ensure that the limited-choice set consisted
of neither the most preferred
nor
the least preferred jam flavors,
a
prelim-
inary survey
of 30
Stanford undergraduates examined individual prefer-
ences
for the 24
flavors
of
jam. These students were provided
a
list
of
the 24 exotic jam flavors and were asked, "Please read the following list of
jams.
Put
a
star next
to
the two best-sounding jams,
in
your opinion. Put
a
check mark next
to two
good
but not
excellent-sounding jams,
and an X
next
to the two
worst sounding jams."
On the
basis
of
this preliminary
survey, kiwi
and
peach jams were selected
to
represent
the two
most
preferred jams, black cherry
and
three-fruits marmalade were selected
to
represent
the
moderately tasty jams,
and
lemon curd and red currant were
selected
to
represent
the
least preferred jams.
Procedure
Two research assistants, dressed
as
store employees, invited passing
customers
to
"come
try
our Wilkin and Sons jams." Shoppers encountered
one
of
two displays.
On the
table were either
6
(limited-choice condition)
or
24
(extensive-choice condition) different jams.
On
each
of
two Satur-
days,
the
displays were rotated hourly;
the
hours
of the
displays were
counterbalanced across days
to
minimize
any day or
time-of-day effects.
Initial testing. Consumers were allowed
to
taste
as
many jams
as
they
wished.
All
consumers who approached
the
table received
a
coupon
for a
$l-discount
off
the purchase
of
any Wilkin
&
Sons jam. Afterwards,
any
shoppers who wished
to
purchase the jam needed
to
go to the relevant jam
shelf,
select
the jam of
their choice,
and
then purchase
the
item
at the
store's main cash registers.
As a
result, regardless
of the
tasting-booth
display encountered
by
each customer,
all
potential buyers
of
Wilkin
&
Sons products necessarily encountered
the
entire display
of
flavors.
An inconspicuous observer recorded
the
number
of
customers
who
approached the table, as well as the number of passers-by who did not stop.
A second observer, also unobtrusive, made educated guesses about
the
ethnicity,
age, and
gender
of
each customer
who did
stop
at the
tasting
booth.
In addition,
a
random sample
of
solicitations was tape-recorded and later
presented
to two
independent raters, unaware
of
both
the
conditions
and
hypotheses
of
the study, who rated each solicitation
on a 1-5
Likert scale
of "friendliness" ranging from
not at
all friendly
to
very friendly. Overall,
the average friendliness score
was
high
(M = 4.5), and the
correlation
between
the
raters was high,
r =
.90,
p <
.0001.
Subsequent analyses
on
these scores showed that
the
solicitations
did not
vary according
to con-
dition,
F(l, 99) =
.86,
ns.
Subsequent purchasing.
On the
bottom left-hand corner
of
each
dis-
count coupon was
a
code indicating
the
condition assignment
and
gender
of each consumer. Other numbers
and
letters surrounded these codes
to
lead customers
to
believe that the code represented
a
coupon scan number.
Coupons could
be
redeemed over
a
period
of
1 week.
Results
The central aim of Study 1 was to examine whether the number
of options displayed affected consumers' initial attraction to or
subsequent purchase of the displayed product. As noted, more
women than men stopped at the booth; however, there were no
gender differences by condition, either for initial attraction or for
subsequent purchasing behavior.
Initial Attractiveness
of
Selections
To what extent does having extensive choice initially seem
desirable? Of the 242 customers who passed the extensive-
selection display of
jams,
60% (145) actually stopped at the booth.
In contrast, of the 260 customers who passed the limited-selection
display of jams, only 40% (104) stopped. Thus, consumers who
encountered the extensive-choice condition were more attracted to
the booth than consumers exposed to the limited-choice condition,
suggesting that the variety provided in the extensive-choice con-
dition was initially more attractive, ^(1, N = 502) = 19.89, p <
.001.'
One might imagine that consumers who encountered 24 differ-
ent jams would sample more flavors than would those who en-
countered 6 different varieties. In fact, however, there were no
significant differences, F(l, 245) = 0.83, ns; consumers in the
extensive-choice condition sampled an average of 1.50 jams
(range = 1-2), whereas consumers in the limited-choice condition
sampled an average of 1.38 jams (range = 1-2).
Subsequent Purchasing Behavior
Is the initial attractiveness of extensive choice also reflected in
subsequent purchasing behavior? Our findings suggest not: Nearly
30%
(31) of the consumers in the limited-choice condition subse-
quently purchased ajar of Wilkin & Sons jam; in contrast, only 3%
(4) of the consumers in the extensive-choice condition did so, ^(1,
N = 249) = 32.34, p <
.0001.
Thus, consumers initially exposed
to limited choices proved considerably more likely to purchase the
product than consumers who had initially encountered a much
larger set of options.
Discussion
These findings are striking. Certainly, they appear to challenge
a fundamental assumption underlying classic psychological theo-
ries of human motivation and economic theories of rational-
choice—that having more, rather than fewer, choices is necessarily
more desirable and intrinsically motivating. The findings from this
study show that an extensive array of options can at first seem
highly appealing to consumers, yet can reduce their subsequent
motivation to purchase the product. Even though consumers pre-
sumably shop at this particular store in part because of the large
number of selections available, having "too much" choice seems
nonetheless to have hampered their later motivation to buy.
There are, however, several potential limitations to this initial
field experiment. To begin with, it is possible that consumers in the
limited-choice condition believed that there was something special
about the specific six jams displayed, especially after they became
1
In
keeping with current guidelines, because the cell sizes
in
the present
studies were substantial (Siegel, 1956) and because there were more than
5
times
as
many subjects
as
there were cells (Delucchi, 1983),
it was not
deemed necessary
to
perform
a
correction
for
continuity.
998
IYENGAR AND LEPPER
aware of the multitude of other options available on the
shelf.
Such
a belief could have made the limited-choice consumers more prone
to purchase jam. Consequently, it is worth considering whether the
pattern of results would be altered if the limited-choice condition
were operationalized such that participants were not aware of the
multitude of other options potentially available.
In addition, the contrasting displays of jam may have invited
motivationally differing consumer groups. Although the display
of 24 jams may have aroused the curiosity of otherwise uninter-
ested passers-by, the display of 6 jams may have appealed to store
customers who were more serious about the purchasing of jam. To
rule out this possibility, it was necessary to examine the motiva-
tional consequences of limited versus extensive choices with a
sample of participants who were not given the opportunity to
self-select their condition assignment.
Finally, since consumers in both conditions sampled no more,
than two jam flavors, it is possible that the consumers in the
extensive-choice condition felt that they did not have sufficient
time to determine their preferences. Although consumers in both
conditions were allowed the freedom to peruse and to sample as
many of the displayed flavors as they wished, social pressure or
time constraints may have prevented them from taking full advan-
tage of this opportunity. Thus, one might question whether the
obtained differences in motivation would be eliminated if partic-
ipants in both conditions were given the opportunity to peruse their
options in an unconstrained, nonpublic context.
Study 2 endeavored to address these concerns and to generalize
the findings from Study 1 to an educational setting, in which
measures of actual performance, as well as choice, could be
observed. Thus, in Study 2, participants in the limited-choice
condition were not aware of any options beyond those in the
limited-choice set. Similarly, careful attention was given to choos-
ing a task that enabled participants to spend as much time as they
wished in perusing their choices. Moreover, unlike Study 1,
Study 2 employed a yoked design; the limited-choice set was
rotated such that for every item encountered by an extensive-
choice participant, there was a limited-choice participant who had
encountered the same item.
Study 2
In Study 2, students in an introductory social psychology class
were given the opportunity to write a two-page essay as an extra-
credit assignment. Students were given either 6 or 30 potential
essay topics on which they could choose to write. Intrinsic moti-
vation was assessed by comparing the percentage of students who
completed the assignment across the two conditions and the qual-
ity of the essays written in each condition.
Method
Participants
One hundred ninety-seven students
in
an introductory social psychology
class
at
Stanford University served
as the
participants
in
this study.
The
class included 116 women
and
81 men.
In
addition
to
attending biweekly
lectures,
all
students were required
to
attend smaller weekly discussion
sections led by five graduate student teaching assistants. The students were
divided into
10
discussion sections; each
of the
five teaching assistants
led
2
sections. Sections included anywhere from
8 to 26
students. Four
students ultimately dropped the class and were therefore excluded from the
analysis.
Procedures
As part
of the
course,
all
students were required
to
watch
the
movie,
"Twelve Angry Men." Related
to
this requirement,
an
extra-credit assign-
ment was offered,
and it
was the administration
of
this extra-credit oppor-
tunity that provided
the
context
for a
naturalistic experiment.
Before Thanksgiving week, extra-credit assignments were distributed
to
the students.
All
assignments included
the
following instructions:
Instead
of
having section next week,
all
students will
be
required
to
watch
a
movie being shown
in
room
40 on
Monday, November 25,
between 7-9 PM. After watching the movie, you can obtain two extra
credit points on your next midterm examination by writing
a
response
paper
to the
movie. The following
is a
list
of
possible questions
you
can write about. Papers should
be
approximately
one to two
pages
typed, double spaced,
and are
due Tuesday, December
3, in
class.
If
you choose
to
do this assignment, you must circle the paper topic
and
attach this page
to
your response paper.
After reading these instructions, students found themselves confronted
by either
6
different essay topics (limited-choice condition)
or
30 different
essay topics (extensive-choice condition).
All
essay questions dealt with
topics related
to the
material covered
in the
course. Careful attention
was
given
to
selecting essay topics that were comparable
in
difficulty,
and
analyses
of
performance revealed
no
differences
as a
function
of the
specific topic chosen.
In all, there were six different versions
of
the extra-credit assignment.
In
addition to the 30-topic assignment, five versions of the 6-topic assignment
were created, such that
all of
the items from
the
list
of 30
were counter-
balanced across
the
five limited-choice assignments.
Students were first informed of the movie requirement during the weekly
section meeting before Thanksgiving week.
To
minimize
the
possibility
that students would notice the different versions, assignments were handed
out
in the
section meetings rather than
in
class lectures.
At
this time,
the
teaching assistants distributed these assignments, with
an
identical verbal
description, reinforcing the information about the opportunity
for
students
to gain
two
extra points
on
their next midterm.
On no
occasion were
students
led to
believe that their essays would be graded.
On
the contrary,
they were explicitly told that their performance
on the
assignment
was
irrelevant
to the
receipt
of
the
two
points.
Because each
of
the five teaching assistants administered
two
separate
sections,
one of
these
two
sections
was
assigned
to the
limited-choice
condition
and
the other was assigned
to
the extensive-choice condition.
In
this
way,
five sections
of
students received
six
essay topics
and
five
sections
of
students received thirty. Because
the
number
of
students
per
section varied,
it
was not possible
to
assign equal numbers
of
students
to
the
two
conditions.
As a
result,
70
students were assigned
to the
limited-
choice condition, whereas
123
students were assigned
to the
extensive-
choice condition.
No
differences were found across
the
five teaching
assistants
in
terms
of
assignment completion; students assigned
to one
teaching assistant were just
as
likely
to do the
extra-credit assignment
as
students assigned
to
another teaching assistant.
Dependent Measures
Two measures assessed students' subsequent motivation
in the two
conditions. The first was the percentage
of
participants who chose
to
write
an essay.
The
second was
the
quality
of
the essays produced.
As previously indicated, the students were told that their performance on
these extra-credit assignments would have no impact
on
their class grades.
Nevertheless,
it was of
interest
to
determine whether
the
number
of
alternatives available might also affect performance quality. Accordingly,
WHEN CHOICE IS DEMOTTVATING
999
two graduate students, unaware of both the participants' choice conditions
and the hypotheses of this experiment, graded each of the response papers
for both content and form using two 10-point scales, which ranged from
"extremely poor" to "excellent."
2
When grading for content, two factors were taken into consideration.
The first was the accurate depiction and appropriate use of social-
psychological concepts. The second was the use of clear examples from the
film that related and mapped onto the different social-psychological pro-
cesses being discussed. The inter-rater correlation for content scores was
r =
.70,
p <
.0001.
The form score similarly assessed students' facility on
two dimensions. First, each paper was judged on whether it had clear
structure (e.g., "Did the introductory paragraph define a hypothesis?").
Second, the papers were evaluated on technical proficiency—spelling,
grammar, and the like. The inter-rater correlation for form scores was r =
.89,
p <
.0001.
Because there was considerable agreement across the two
graders on both content and form, their ratings were averaged, yielding one
content and one form score per student.
Results
Preliminary Analyses
The central point of interest in Study 2 lay, once again, in the
comparison of participants' responses across the two experimental
conditions of limited versus extensive choice. Because preliminary
analyses showed no differences as a function of gender and no
interactions between gender and condition on either measure, the
data were collapsed across this factor.
Assignment Completion
Did the number of choices provided on the instruction sheet
actually influence the percentage of students who completed the
assignment? Overall, 65% (126) of the students chose to do the
assignment. There was, however, a significant effect of condition,
V(l,
N = 193) =
3.93,
p < .05. Of the 70 students assigned to the
limited-choice condition, 74% turned in the assignment. In con-
trast, of the 123 students assigned to the extensive-choice condi-
tion, only 60% chose to complete the assignment.
Quality of Essays
Were these differences in students' willingness to write an essay
also reflected in differences in the quality of these essays? For
content, there was a main effect for condition, F(l, 124) = 4.18,
p < .05. On average, students assigned to the limited-choice
condition performed slightly, although significantly, better
(M = 8.13, SD = 0.95) than those assigned to the extensive-choice
condition (M = 7.79, SD = 0.91). A similar main effect was found
for form, F(l, 124) = 4.64, p < .03. On average, students in the
limited-choice condition scored higher (M = 8.04, SD = 1.33)
than students in the extensive-choice condition (M = 7.59,
SD =
1.02).
Because measures of content and form proved significantly
correlated (r =
.52,
p < .0001), content and form grades were also
averaged to give one overall grade. The condition effect was also
significant for this overall measure, F(l, 124) = 5.65, p < .02,
with students in the limited-choice condition receiving higher
grades (M = 8.09, SD = 1.05) than those in the extensive-choice
condition (M = 7.69, SD = 0.82).
One might ask whether the observed differences in motivation
or performance could somehow have been driven by differences in
students' prior performance in the class. There were, however, no
differences in class midterm performance by condition among the
students who completed the extra-credit assignments, nor were
there differences in midterm performance between those who
subsequently did or did not choose to do the assignment.
Discussion
The findings from Study 2 both confirm and expand on the
findings from Study 1. The results from both studies suggest that
the provision of extensive choices does not necessarily lead to
enhanced motivation when compared with contexts that offer a
limited array of choices. Quite the opposite seems to be the case.
In both studies, people actually seemed to prefer to exercise their
opportunity to choose in contexts where their choices were limited,
and, in Study 2, they even performed better in such limited-choice
contexts.
Particularly counterintuitive, from the perspective of traditional
models, is the finding that the same choice selected from a limited-
choice set can lead to better performance than if the same option
had been selected from an extensive-choice set. Interestingly, in
contrast to prior studies, the measure of performance in the present
experiment was designed to reflect intrinsic motivation. Because
none of the participants thought that their essays would be evalu-
ated, the quality of the paper they wrote should have been primar-
ily a function of their personal interest and motivation.
Thus,
the results of Studies 1 and 2 support the hypothesis that
extensive-choice contexts may be initially more appealing but
are subsequently more likely to hamper people's intrinsic motiva-
tion. Although these field experiments provide compelling
empirical evidence to support this hypothesis, they shed little
light on the mediating mechanisms underlying choice overload.
What, then, are the processes that produce the decreases in sub-
sequent motivation exhibited in contexts that offer extensive
choices?
One possibility is that people encountering overly extensive
choices use a choice-making heuristic that necessarily leads them
to feel less committed to exercising their preferences. Previous
research has argued that limited-choice contexts invite people to
engage in rational optimization—to try to decide which option in
a set is the single best one for them. By contrast, choosers in
extensive-choice contexts may endeavor to balance the tradeoffs
between accuracy and effort, adopting simplifying heuristic strat-
egies that are much more selective in their use of available infor-
mation (Christensen-Szalanski, 1978, 1980; Payne et al., 1988,
1993).
Consequently, extensive-choice contexts may invite people
merely to "satisfice"—to stop when they find any choice that
seems acceptable (Mills, Meltzer, & Clark, 1977; Simon, 1955,
1956).
In other words, when people have "too many" options to
consider, they simply strive to end the choice-making ordeal by
finding a choice that is merely satisfactory, rather than optimal.
Doing otherwise would demand more effort than seems justified
by the prospective increase in utility or satisfaction. Hence, one
2
No actual grade proved lower than a
"5,"
and grades were not restricted
to whole numbers.
1000
IYENGAR AND LEPPER
might predict that people who encounter extensive choices should
report making a less informed decision and should be more likely
to opt for a default choice (Hauser & Wernerfelt, 1990; Payne,
1982;
Shafir et al., 1993; Shafir & Tversky, 1992). Similarly,
choosers opting to satisfice in extensive-choice contexts should
also report being less confident of their choices and less likely to
expect to be satisfied with their particular choices.
A contrasting possibility is that choosers in extensive-choice
contexts may actually feel more committed to the choice-making
process; that is, that they may feel more responsible for the choices
they make because of the multitude of options available. These
enhanced feelings of responsibility, in turn, may inhibit choosers
from exercising their choices, out of fear of later regret. In other
words, choice-makers in extensive-choice contexts might feel
more responsible for their choices given the potential opportunity
of finding the very best option, but their inability to invest the
requisite time and effort in seeking the so-called best option may
heighten their experience of regret with the options they have
chosen. If so, choosers in extensive-choice contexts should per-
ceive the choice-making process to be more enjoyable given
all the possibilities available. They should at the same time,
however, find it more difficult and frustrating given the potentially
overwhelming and confusing amount of information to be
considered.
Study 3, therefore, sought both to provide an instantiation of the
phenomenon of choice overload in a controlled laboratory setting
and to supplement the findings from the last two studies by
including a number of measures designed to test the two opposing
hypotheses outlined above. To test the first hypothesis—that peo-
ple encountering extensive choices tend to use a satisficing heu-
ristic,
whereas people encountering limited choices tend to use an
optimizing heuristic—Study 3 examined choosers' expectations
regarding the choices they had made.
As before, after participants had encountered either a limited
array or an extensive array of options in this study, they were asked
to make a choice. Unlike the prior two studies, however, before
being given the opportunity to sample the selection they had made,
choosers' expectations about this choice were assessed. Partici-
pants provided predictions about how satisfied they would be with
their stated preference—whether they expected the choice they
made to be merely "satisfactory" or "among the best." Participants
also indicated whether they had chosen a default option and
reported how well-informed they felt about the choice they had
made. To test the second hypothesis—that people in extensive-
choice contexts feel more responsible for the choices they make
several affect items were added to Study 3. Specifically, after
making their choices, but before sampling their choices, partici-
pants were asked to provide ratings of their enjoyment, difficulty,
and frustration during the choice-making process. Later, after
sampling their choices, they provided ratings of satisfaction and
regret.
Finally, Study 3 also included a no-choice control condition.
Inclusion of this third group allowed us to examine whether
differences between the limited- and extensive-choice groups were
the result of increases in motivation among limited-choice partic-
ipants and/or decreases in motivation among extensive-choice
participants.
Study 3
In Study 3, participants initially made a selection from either a
limited array or an extensive array of chocolates. Subsequently,
participants in the experimental groups sampled the chocolate of
their choosing, whereas participants in the control group sampled
a chocolate that was chosen for them. Participants' initial satisfac-
tion with the choosing process, their expectations concerning the
choices they had made, their subsequent satisfaction with their
sampled chocolates, and their later purchasing behavior served as
the four main dependent measures in this study.
Conceptually, then, the design of Study 3 involved three groups:
limited choice, extensive choice, and a no-choice control condi-
tion. Because it seemed important to control for the number of
alternatives presented across the choice and no-choice conditions,
half of the participants in the no-choice conditions were shown the
same 6 choices as participants in the limited-choice condition,
whereas the other half were shown the full array of 30 choices, as
were participants in the extensive-choice condition.
Because the choice-condition participants and their no-choice
counterparts were treated identically up through the administration
of the first set of dependent measures, analyses of these measures
will involve only comparisons of those exposed to limited displays
versus those exposed to extensive displays. Once participants had
been given either their own selection or an arbitrarily assigned
chocolate to taste, however, comparisons of limited-choice and
extensive-choice participants to those in the no-choice control
condition then became relevant.
Method
Participants
One hundred thirty-four students from Columbia University were ran-
domly assigned to one of three conditions. There were 33 participants in
the limited-choice condition, 34 participants in the extensive-choice con-
dition, and 67 participants in the no-choice condition. This sample included
63%
women and 37% men. The ethnic distribution of the participants was
55%
Caucasian, 25% Asian, 5% Latino, 4% African American, and 11%
Other.
To eliminate any participant who might have an aversion to chocolate,
all potential participants were prescreened on the basis of two questions.
First, all potential participants were asked, "Do you like chocolate?" Only
those who responded "yes" to this item were then recruited to be partici-
pants in this study. Second, participants were asked, "How often do you eat
Godiva chocolates?" Responses were coded as "never," "occasionally," or
"frequently." Because it was believed that high familiarity with Godiva
flavors and varieties might confound a participant's behavior within this
study, only those participants who responded "never" or "occasionally"
were recruited for this study. Approximately 92% of all potential partici-
pants met these two criteria and were invited to be part of the study.
Instruments
Decision-making measures. A questionnaire was designed to examine
participants' affective responses to the choice-making process and their
expectations after making a choice. To prevent participants' responses
from being biased by the outcome of their choice, we asked them to
complete the questionnaire after they had chosen which chocolates they
wished to sample, but before they had been given the opportunity to sample
their choice. All items called for ratings on a Likert scale ranging from 1
(not at all) to 7 (extremely).
WHEN CHOICE IS DEMOTIVATING 1001
To test the hypothesis that people encountering extensive choices can
experience the choice-making process as both enjoyable and overwhelm-
ing, the questionnaire examined participants' perceptions of the choice-
making process. Specifically, participants were asked about the extent to
which they felt the choice-making process had been enjoyable ("How
much did you enjoy making the choice?"), difficult ("Did you find it
difficult to make your decision of which chocolate to pick?"), or frustrating
("How frustrated did you feel when making the choice?"). They also
predicted how satisfied they would be if they had the opportunity to sample
their chosen chocolate ("How satisfied do you think you will be if you
sample this chocolate?").
To evaluate whether people encountering limited choices are more likely
to optimize (i.e., to seek the very best option) whereas people encountering
extensive choices are more likely to satisfice (i.e., to accept any satisfactory
option), two items were created to examine participants' expectations
regarding their choices. To measure perceived satisficing, we asked par-
ticipants to provide ratings for, "How confident are you that this chocolate
will satisfy you?" To examine perceived optimizing, we asked "How
confident are you that this chocolate will be among the best you've ever
had?"
Similarly, to evaluate whether people in an extensive-choice context
feel less informed and are therefore more prone to choose a default option,
we also asked participants, "Do you feel that you made a well-informed
decision on the chocolate you picked?" and, "Is this a chocolate that you
would normally pick?"
Sample-satisfaction measures. The satisfaction measures were de-
signed to inquire about participants' overall satisfaction with their sampled
chocolates. Specifically, these questions assessed participants' actual sat-
isfaction with the chocolate they had consumed, their regrets about the
chocolate they had tasted, and their satisfaction with the number of choices
they had been given. Experimental participants reported their satisfaction
with their chosen samples, of course, whereas control participants reported
their satisfaction with a chocolate that had been chosen for them.
To test the hypothesis that participants exposed to extensive choices
would be less satisfied with their choices than participants exposed to
limited choices, three items examined participants' satisfaction with their
sampled chocolates: "How satisfied were you with the chocolate you
tasted?", "How much did you enjoy the sample you tasted?", and, "How
tasty was the chocolate you sampled?" All responses were given on Likert
scales, ranging from 1 (not at all) to 7 (extremely).
Similarly, to test whether any potential decrease in satisfaction among
people encountering overly extensive choices would be accompanied by an
increase in regret, two items were included to measure regret: "How much
do you regret eating the chocolate you tasted?" and "Do you think that
there were chocolates on the table that tasted much better?" Both items
were answered on 7-point Likert scales, ranging from 1 (no, not at alt) to 7
(yes,
completely).
Because one can only infer through behavioral measures in Studies 1
and 2 whether 30 or 24 choices actually constituted an overly extensive
choice set, Study 3 included a manipulation check in which participants
were asked their perceptions about the number of choices provided. Spe-
cifically, participants were asked: "When initially given the task to pick a
chocolate from the display, do you think the selection should have included
more kinds of chocolates?" Responses were given on a 7-point Likert scale,
with 1 being, I felt that I had too few to choose from, 4 being, / had the
right number of choices to choose
from,
and 7 being, No, I had too many
to choose from.
Demographic measures. At the conclusion of the experiment, all par-
ticipants completed a brief demographics questionnaire. This questionnaire
inquired about participants' age, ethnicity, gender, and affiliation with
Columbia University.
Experimental Procedures
As participants entered the laboratory, the experimenter directed them to
sit at a round table on which there was one of two different displays of
chocolates. In the limited-choice display, participants encountered one row
of
6
different flavors of Godiva chocolates; in the extensive-choice display,
participants encountered 30 different chocolates, arranged in five rows
of 6. Next to each chocolate was a label indicating its "official," Godiva
name (e.g., "Grand Marnier Truffle"). When designating the composition
of the five rows, careful attention was given to ensuring that similar flavors
were not in the same row (e.g., a Strawberry Cordial would not be assigned
to the same group as the Raspberry Cordial). In those conditions in which
participants encountered only six chocolates, the five groups were rotated
such that for every chocolate encountered in the extensive-choice display
there was a possibility of the same chocolate being encountered in the
limited-choice display.
The experimenter gave participants the following cover story for the
study: "We're doing a marketing research study that examines how people
select chocolates. What I would like you to do is take a look at the names
of the chocolates and the chocolates themselves, and tell me which one you
would buy for
yourself."
All participants then proceeded to choose the
chocolate they would wish to have.
Because prior research suggests that people making a choice among four
alternatives sometimes take less time than people making a selection
between two (Hendrick, Mills, & Kiesler, 1968; Kiesler, 1966), the amount
of time spent deciding which chocolate to sample was also recorded in this
study. Once the participants pointed to a chocolate, they were asked to
complete the decision-making measures described above.
Next, participants encountered the manipulation of choice. In the two
choice conditions, the experimenter offered the participants the opportunity
to sample the chocolate they had chosen. In contrast, in the no-choice
condition, the participants were not permitted to sample the chocolate they
had chosen but were instead told, "We have some sample chocolates that
have been chosen for you at random. These are [e.g.,] 'Milk Chocolate
Truffles'." The experimenter then opened a box containing eight identical
chocolates, which were not of the participants' choosing, and asked the
participants to take one. As in prior studies (Zuckerman et al., 1978), we
used a yoked design, so that the same chocolates chosen by participants in
the choice conditions were the ones offered to participants in the no-choice
condition.
After sampling the chocolate, participants completed the sample satis-
faction measures and the demographics questionnaire described above.
Next, the experimenter led the participant to believe that the experiment
had concluded, saying, "Thanks. We appreciate your time. You can go see
the manager for your compensation in room three."
In the payment room, a second experimenter, unaware of the condition
assignments, greeted the participants. This experimenter offered the subject
a choice of receiving a payment of either 5 dollars or a box containing four
Godiva chocolates ordinarily priced at 5 dollars: "As you know, your
compensation is five dollars for being in the study. You can choose
between getting five dollars in cash or a box of Godiva chocolates that is
worth five dollars. Which one would you like for participating in the
survey?" Boxes bearing the emblem of Godiva were visible to the partic-
ipants as they walked into the room. The number of participants who opted
for the box of chocolates constituted the final dependent measure.
One potential problem with these experimental procedures is that al-
though the first experimenters were unaware of the hypotheses underlying
the study, they were necessarily aware of the experimental manipulations.
As a result, one might reasonably wonder whether the experimenters might
vary their behavior across conditions. Therefore, all experimental sessions
were videotaped, and 40 sessions (10 from each choice condition and 20
from the no-choice condition) were randomly