Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

16 September 2014

I never thought it would be like this. That feeling of dread in the stomach – the same back-to-school sickness I used to feel as a child after the summer holidays had ended. Yet ever since arriving in New York at the end of July, I have been a man paralysed by indecision, incapable of making the most basic of life choices. Surely this chronic vacillation has a medical name? And hopefully a medical cure.

The root of my problem boils down to one broad concept: choice. After years of living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where beef ruled my diet and a salad was deemed exotic if it included rocket, I am now bombarded with a sensory overload on a daily basis – and it always involves multiple choice. This is the city where you really can get anything.

My first whiff of trouble came with a trip to a Soho chop salad bar. An attendant screamed at me to choose from a plethora of salad leaves and toppings; I was cajoled and reprimanded for my indecision, causing me to panic buy. Then I had to change lines to another mind-boggler: did I chose the lemon and olive oil? The classic balsamic? The chipotle lime? It was a salad dressing showdown and more than 20 options teased me.

My choice meltdown hasn’t been limited to salad. From staring in disbelief at the supermarket milk selection – who could know that so many different almond brands existed? – to shopping for homeware, I’ve encountered the same brain dysfunction.

Thankfully, it seems, I am not alone. Back in the year 2000, Sheena Iyengar, a management professor, and Mark Lepper, a psychologically professor, wrote a Columbia University paper entitled, When choice is demotivating: can one desire too much of a good thing? The paper mentions a 1990s jam study. Shoppers presented with a small number of the condiments reacted more positively than when that number was greatly increased. In fact, they proved 10 times more likely to make a purchase if they had six rather than 24 flavours to choose from.

Now I’m not suggesting we need to have some puritanical, state-imposed limit on choice. I feel like I’d be chased out of the US for crushing the American Dream if so. Nor am I suggesting going back to my basic Argentinean salad – which certainly doesn’t contain any New York-friendly kale. But what this all suggests is that consumers can, like me, feel serious anxiety when overwhelmed with having to choose. Business owners listen up: this is an instance where less really can mean more. And we’d probably be much happier for it.

Ed Stocker is Monocle’s New York bureau chief.

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