Choice Overload And Why It Matters In Business

Choice overload is a phenomenon where consumers are overwhelmed by too many choices. Modern consumers have access to a bewildering array of products and services. Simply buying the ingredients for a morning cup of coffee involves choosing from a long and varied list of milk, sugar, coffee, and coffee machines. Indeed, connoisseurs who prefer 1% milk over 2% milk or coffee beans from a remote Ethiopian plantation are well catered for.

Understanding choice overload

But is this necessarily a good thing?

A lot of research has been done to attempt to answer this question. Psychologist Barry Schwartz coined the term “paradox of choice” in arguing that choice overload discourages consumers from making purchasing decisions.

However, a subsequent study explored the subject in more detail. By conducting 50 separate experiments on choice overload, researchers had mixed results. In some instances, large assortments of items hampered decision-making ability. In others, decision-making ability was unaffected.

Choice overload and the decision-making process

Disagreement over the validity of choice overload was quelled in a 2016 study conducted by Stanford marketing professor Itamar Simonson.

Simonson found that consumers do enjoy a large assortment of options, but the degree of enjoyment is based on where they are in their decision-making timeline.

Put differently:

  • When a consumer begins by considering whether they want to make a purchase or not, a large selection of products increases the odds that the consumer will make a purchase. 
  • However, if a consumer selects a single product from an assortment of products before considering whether to make a purchase, the larger selection increases indecision and reduces the likelihood that a purchase is made.

The decision to purchase under choice overload actually involves two decisions. As Simonson noted, “If your first decision is about whether you want to buy, then having more options is conducive to buying. But if your first decision is on which specific product to select, then having a big assortment can make it more difficult to identify the best option.”

Implications of choice overload for consumers and business

When a consumer becomes indecisive and fails to act, there are several negative consequences for businesses. Here are a few of them:

  1. Indecisive consumers tend to purchase less, hurting sales revenue.
  2. Indecisive consumers tend to put less thought into purchasing decisions. When a study gave participants the choice of several variants of the same toothpaste brand, most opted to avoid the pain of making a decision and went with a brand with a single variant.
  3. Indecisive consumers are less satisfied. Choice overload causes a consumer to become instantly dissatisfied with their purchase – even if no better alternative exists. This can lead to products receiving negative reviews and seriously hinders the ability of a business to build relationships with its target audience.

Implications for business

Businesses can address indecision by reducing the complexity or breadth of their product range. Perhaps counterintuitively, a smaller product range with fewer distractions can also improve conversion rates. This is because consumers are less overwhelmed and tend to make careful and reasoned purchasing decisions that meet their needs.

For those who absolutely must offer a large product range, improving site navigation on mobile and desktop can help avoid choice overload. Products should be grouped into categories where possible. However, a consumer without a particular product in mind might want to see a large range of unrelated products – so websites must incorporate this functionality too.

Key takeaways

  • Choice overload describes the tendency for consumers to become overwhelmed in the face of too many product options.
  • Choice overload occurrence is dependent on where a consumer is in the decision-making process. Consumers browsing a list of products without a specific preference in mind are more likely to be immune to this phenomenon.
  • Choice overload causes dissatisfied consumers who tend to purchase less often. When a product is purchased, the decision is based on a desire to avoid careful deliberation and not on whether the product satisfies their needs.

Connected Business Concepts

Barbell Strategy

A Barbell strategy consists of making sure that 90% of your capital is safe, and using the remaining 10%, or on risky investments. Applied to business strategy, this means having a binary approach. On the one hand, extremely conservative. On the other, extremely aggressive, thus creating a potent mix.

Technological Modeling

Technological modeling is a discipline to provide the basis for companies to sustain innovation, thus developing incremental products. While also looking at breakthrough innovative products that can pave the way for long-term success. In a sort of Barbell Strategy, technological modeling suggests having a two-sided approach, on the one hand, to keep sustaining continuous innovation as a core part of the business model. On the other hand, it places bets on future developments that have the potential to break through and take a leap forward.


As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Moonshot Thinking

Moonshot thinking is an approach to innovation, and it can be applied to business or any other discipline where you target at least 10X goals. That shifts the mindset, and it empowers a team of people to look for unconventional solutions, thus starting from first principles, by leveraging on fast-paced experimentation.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What is marketing can be associated with social proof.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger

Read Next: HeuristicsBiases.

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