The Psychology of Too Much Choice

An understanding of psychology is one of the four components of Dr. Deming’s management system. This understanding lies behind practices such as: driving out fear, respect for people and eliminating slogans.

In an organization all the components (practices, processes, investments, training, people, suppliers, customers…) interact with the others. Dr. Deming tried to develop a system that took that reality into account. This reminds me of Einstein’s thought that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Often people asked Dr. Deming for simple rules. To me, they asked for him to provide an answer that was simpler than possible (to be effective).

The choice he provided was to learn about understanding variation, systems, psychology and the theory of knowledge and to then apply that understanding to management. I think perhaps it is easier to market a management system that has been made simple (in my view too simple but…). This is stretching the notion of choice a bit, but I think the equating the notion of too much choice and complexity makes sense – as far as making this point goes anyway.

When focusing on providing solutions to customers, it is important to know that too much choice can be demotivating. As When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing? [the link broken by was removed] by Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper discusses:

In 1830, Alexis de Tocqueville commented that, “In America I have seen the freest and best educated of men in circumstances the happiest to be found in the world; yet it seemed to me that a cloud habitually hung on their brow, and they seemed serious and almost sad even in their pleasures.” (p.536) More than one hundred years later, we are confronted with empirical findings which may support the paradox that de Tocqueville observed.

The three studies described in this report demonstrate for the first time the possibility, that while having more choices might appear desirable, it may sometimes have detrimental consequences for human motivation.

Joel Spolsky discussed this idea in: Choices = Headaches.

Google offers wonderful webcasts of speeches available online by experts on engineering and other topics. In The Paradox of Choice – Why More Is Less [the link broken by was removed], Barry Schwartz discusses related ideas and mentions the only kind of mobile phone you can’t get not is a simple one.

More from, Iyengar and Lepper:

On the other hand, a growing body of research also suggests that people can have difficulty managing complex choices. To begin with, research has shown that as the attractiveness of alternatives rises individuals experience conflict and, as a result, tend to defer decision, search for new alternatives, choose the default option, or simply opt not to choose

Related: Usability FailuresDangers of Extrinsic MotivationImproving the 401(k) SystemStop Demotivating Employees

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