How To Make A Decision When You’re Spoilt For Choice

18 Sep 2019

How To Make A Decision When You’re Spoilt For Choice

I spent Saturday night shopping on the internet

Yes, I know — I should get out more! Yet, despite knowing precisely what I wanted to buy, I bought nothing. 

How To Make A Decision When You’re Spoilt For Choice

I found what I was looking for on Amazon in no time and was busily reading purchasers’ reviews. Then I noticed another similar product. I was keen to look at this product too. Both products had great reviews. But then I saw yet another product in the same range and thought that maybe that one might suit me better.

To cut a long story short, after spending about 3 hours looking at endless products and products reviews, I had five remarkably similar products in my basket, plus several books. Wondering how I ended with so many things in my basket, and exasperated by my apparent greed and complete inability to make a decision, I gave up, bought none of them, turned the computer off in frustration and went to bed!

The problem was there were too many choices 

Turns out quite a few of us share the challenge of being indecisive and overwhelmed when faced with lots of options. 

Professor Sheena Iyengar in her book “The Art of Choosing” Professor Sheena Iyengar refers to a study in which a grocery store set up two different sampling stations; one had 24 flavours of jam while the other had only 6. You might be surprised that at the stall with only 6 flavours, 30% of people purchased at least one jar. Watch the video. While at the stall with 24 flavours, although more people looked at the jams, only 3% bought anything.

On my recent ‘trip’ to Amazon, I was quite clear about what I wanted. But when presented with numerous alternatives, I wanted to make sure I bought the ‘right’ one. I didn’t want to face the hassle of returning something unsuitable, or being stuck with something that’s not fit for purpose. 

Again, it turns out that this is a widespread problem

If we’re only able to choose between two things, we have a 50/50 chance of being right. If we have four options from which to select, our chances are now only 25%. And, obviously, the more choices we have, the more chance we have of making the wrong one. 

With a choice of 20 options, things get even more complicated

To begin with, you can’t retain all the pros and cons of each option in your head. This means your criteria for making a purchase is likely to change the more you look at alternatives. On top of this, the amount of time and effort needed to get to the decision point increases.

Let’s say you wanted to buy something simple like next years diary or planner

Photo by Alexa Williams on Unsplash


Well, there’s the first decision right there. Is it a diary — or a planner you want? Turns out they’re completely different types of stationery! You decide you want one-day-per-page and a space for appointments. You find quite a few that meet this criterion but then you also find one that has a monthly overview and realise how useful that would be. So you look for others that also have a monthly overview.

Your criteria have now changed, and anything without a monthly overview is rejected 

Sure enough, you find some more with that feature. 

As you’re searching, you find a diary that has a pen loop. You’re always losing your pen, so you think this would be an excellent way to make sure your pen is always handy. You add this new diary feature to your list of must-haves. By this stage, you’re no longer comparing ‘apples with apples’ so to speak. If someone then suggests buying an app or using the diary on your phone, you’re likely to become so overwhelmed you’ll leave the entire decision for another day!

That might not be such a bad thing

As a result of my indecision, I’ve been researching decision-making when there are many options.

Here’s a synopsis of what I discovered:
  1. It’s challenging to make a decision when you’re tired. And evaluating all possible options can make you even more fatigued. You might also be exhausted as a result of having already made an average of 70 decisions at work that particular day. When you think about it, you’re probably making hundreds of choices of smaller or greater magnitude each day; simple choices such as what to have for lunch or more complex work decisions.
  2. When you get tired, you’re more likely to take the default option — and regret it later.
  3. There’s a distinct probability you’ll make impulse buys, or instant choices — like buying that Mars bar at the checkout — when you’re tired.
  4. Limiting your options can help you arrive at a more creative answer. 
  5. Getting the choices out of your head can help:
    1. Listing (or spreadsheeting) the features you want and which products have those features.
    2. Or simply list the pros and cons of each.
  6. Where possible, make one choice at a time. For example, if you’re shopping for black boots, don’t even look at other colours. If you need them to be flat, don’t look at those with heels etc. In this way, you limit your choices at any given moment, and decisions sequentially.
And the best advice of all?

You’re better off making decisions in the morning when you’re fresh. So if you’re undecided — sleep on it.