The notion that consumers are paralysed by an excess of choice – the findings of the famous ‘jam study’ – is too simplistic; choice overload sets in at different points depending on the type of product or service being purchased.

In the latest of an ongoing series of articles on behavioural science, Crawford Hollingworth and Liz Barker of The Behavioural Architects, explore how thinking about choice has evolved since the 2000 study that found shoppers presented with fewer choices of jams ended up purchasing more jam than those presented with a larger range of jam.

They cite a more recent study (Sarah C. Whitley et al) which found that people tended to demand and prefer more choice when searching for and choosing a ‘hedonistic’ product than they did for more ‘utilitarian’ products. (For more, read the full article: New Frontiers in Behavioural Science: When is Choice a Paradox? The evolution of choice theory.)

Utilitarian or functional products typically include necessities such as detergents, toilet roll, milk – the authors also include family cars and laptops in this classification – which tend not to generate much of an emotional response in the buying and purchase process.

Hedonistic products, on the other hand, are luxuries or nice-to-have items that generate an emotional response and pleasure. So products like perfumes, designer clothes, jewellery, and sports cars fall into this category.

Other research lends weight to this idea: how sure we are of our preferences influences how much choice we prefer; “we are more likely to be interested in, know – or at least recognise – what we want in a hedonistic product,” the authors note.

“It’s often a choice based on emotion and simply how much we like it.”

When buying utilitarian items, on the other hand, there may be greater reliance on objective data such as product reviews and recommendations.

Utilitarian purchases are also more open to ‘satisficing’ where picking an option that is ‘good enough’ may be the best option for many people. But even then, the concept of ‘good enough’ will vary from one person to another.

“Choosing jam for some might be a fun task, whilst for others (perhaps the ‘food is fuel’ type of person) it’s dull or mundane,” the authors point out.

Sourced from WARC