Choice is a hot topic in behavioural science. In fact, whether people prefer more or less choice has been debated for many years, though the debate originally began by considering the choices of a donkey. In the 14th century, the French philosopher, Jean Burridan suggested that a donkey facing a choice between two piles of hay – two equally tempting options – would delay the choice, a conundrum sometimes known as “Buridan’s ass”.1

In this article, the fifth in our series on the new frontiers of behavioural science, we look at how our understanding of choice has, and is, continuing to develop such that we are now much better able to tailor how we offer choice to people in the optimum ways, depending on the context, and even the person.

Where we were – yesterday’s research

By the late twentieth century, the accepted view was that more choice was better; the idea being that offering a wealth of choice allowed consumers their deserved freedom to better match their preferences and find exactly what they were looking for. In the last couple of decades, this view has gradually been challenged by a new camp, showcased by psychologists such as Barry Schwartz and Sheena Iyengar, who found evidence to suggest that less choice was often a good thing. They suggested that giving people fewer options led to more purchases, less choice paralysis and greater levels of satisfaction post-purchase. To some extent, this viewpoint has become increasingly relevant in an increasingly consumer society – with both huge supermarkets and online retail stores, such as Amazon – where there are often hundreds of options and variations of the same product, to suit all tastes.