The paradox of choice – in politics and in marketing

This fascinating election year began with Republican primary voters facing an unprecedented 17 contenders for the nomination. Only one could get the job. To earn the party’s vote, they had to find a way to stand out and attract voters, but doing so became increasingly difficult as more and more people announced their bid to run.

Choosing from an overwhelming number of options isn’t unique to the political sphere or the 2016 election. Many products and services struggle to make sales in an overly saturated market full of choices and chatter. TVs come in a variety of displays, ports, sizes and price ranges. Smartphones are offered by multiple providers and come in a variety of colors, display options, storage sizes and qualities. While presenting a customer with options might seem like a good idea, studies have shown that too many choices can be bad for business.

Too many choices are bad for business

One of the most famous experiments in consumer psychology, called the Jam Study, proved this point in 2000. It found that consumers were 10 times more likely to purchase a jar of jam on display when the number of flavors was reduced from 24 to 6. College psychologist Barry Schwartz calls this the Paradox of Choice. He argues that paralysis is a consequence of having too many choices. When people feel overwhelmed by a decision, they simply won’t make one at all. Schwartz further explains, “The second effect is that even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from.”

The best way to avoid this problem is to limit the number of options or features you present your customer.

Limit the options you offer customers

That’s easy to say and often hard to do – especially in politics and in the technology industry. As part of our democratic system, political parties and voters have no control over how many candidates enter the race. Sometimes candidates run unopposed, and other times they have heavy competition. In the technology industry, new products enter the market at a rapid pace. Some are for power users who want advanced capabilities, while others are for newbies who want simplicity.

For this reason, feature creep is especially common with software and technology products.  Developers have a tendency to add features, creating complex products that are confusing and hard to use. This can complicate a product line and lower sales. Companies must carefully balance the value of the latest advance with the decision-making burden it places on the buyer. Customers are much more likely to learn about a new product when they aren’t already overwhelmed by the number of choices on the market.

Republican primary case study

Similar to the Jam Study, the Republican Party had an overwhelming number of candidates. Voters struggled to learn each person’s qualifications, policy ideas, and comments on the campaign trail. While we can’t definitively say this contributed to Trump’s rise, we can say that his unique background and bold personality helped him stand out of the crowd.

When Trump officially became the nominee on Tuesday, July 19th, the roll call vote was overshadowed by dissent and apathy atypical of what is traditionally a celebration of the party’s White House candidate. According to the Pew Research Center, just 38% of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters said the Party would “solidly unite” behind him, and only 40% said they were satisfied with their choices for president. Could this be proof of Schwartz’s theory? Would voters have been more satisfied if they had fewer options to choose from?

Cross-industry marketing challenges

While politics and technology are different industries, they can both generate a crowded field. The marketing challenge of too many choices affects all industries and stages of the buying process. Politicians have a harder time standing out among the competition, and voters have a harder time picking a candidate. Technology has a harder time selling in a saturated market, and consumers have a harder time choosing a product. By limiting the amount of decisions people have to make, producers and consumers in any industry may be more successful.