Choice Fatigue



Your brain gets tired, and one fatiguing activity is making choices. Various studies show that as people make more decisions, their subsequent decisions are rushed or they don’t decide at all. One study, by Ned Augenblick and Scott Nicholson of Stanford, analyzed voting patterns in a California county. They found that the lower on the ballot an item appeared, the more likely the voter was to not make a choice or to use a shortcut, like picking the first choice or voting to keep the status quo.

The Stanford research showed that this effect wasn’t insignificant; a 10% difference in abstentions was observed between items placed at the top or bottom of the ballot, and the authors found that about 6% of the propositions that had failed in actual voting would likely have passed had they been at the top of the ballot.

Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota has studied choice fatigue too, and found that a day of shopping decisions at the mall reduced the self-control of the individuals she tested. Her research showed that those subjects who had made more decisions during the day showed less inclination to study for a math test or drink a somewhat unpleasant drink in return for a reward. In essence, their brains were tired from a day of decision-making.

While one might think that a lack of self control on the part of a consumer could be a good thing for marketers, it likely isn’t. In the voting study, people were more likely to not make a decision at all if they were suffering from choice fatigue, or to choose to not change the status quo. Neither of these is beneficial to most marketing situations. And, in More Choices, Fewer Sales I discussed how offering too many choices can actually reduce sales.

The neuromarketing takeaway from choice fatigue research is that forcing a consumer to make a series of decisions will tire them out (even though they won’t be conscious of that fatigue). As the decision-making continues, they will be increasingly reluctant to decide at all, or will choose the most simple choice – often a “no” or “do nothing.” If you are selling a complex product, don’t postpone the most important decisions to the end of the process. If you leave your most profitable option (or worse, the decision to complete the order) to the very end, you are increasing the chance that the customer won’t act at all. Rather, close the deal first, and put the most important choices at the beginning.

  1. Geno Prussakov says

    I have a friend who always says “having too much choice is bad”. He’s not a marketer. Just an average Joe type of consumer…

    Roger, apart from “don’t postpone the most important decisions to the end of the process” and “put the most important choices at the beginning” are there any other practical tips that marketers (especially the online ones) should keep in mind (e.g.: one-page checkouts always beat multi-step ones)?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Geno, I don’t know if the mechanism is choice fatigue, but I think there are a lot of things that can dissuade a consumer from completing an offer – long forms, having to select confusing options, etc. I’d probably test the multipage form issue in the intended environment. While any time you make web visitors load a new page you risk losing them, you can also scare them off with a daunting form. I’ve seen a lot of sites start with a very simple looking form that encourages completion, then loads another page, or even multiple pages, with more form fields. If it looks simple, the visitor will do it; and, with some effort invested already, the visitor may keep on going. I’d always recommend keeping the process as simple as possible, and offering encouragement like, “Takes less than 2 minutes!” or “You are almost done!”

      Testing is key, though. CMOs may behave differently than students.


  2. Geno Prussakov says

    I agree: simple definitely always wins over complex. Isn’t Google an exemplary case of it? Simple on the surface, robust in its essence.

  3. pickup games says

    This is totally right, when there are too many choices people flake out, when there are too little choices people want’s customize.

  4. James Obermayer says

    Interesting. I am reminded of my impatience in getting too many choices at a restaurant. Server: Dinner salad or small side salad? Dressing (listing at least 8), do you wan to split that? Cheese or not? As for the entre: Rare, medium or well? Pan fried or grilled. Baked potatoes, mashed or rice? Vegetables? Spring medley, asparagus, or grilled vegetables? Desert, well now we have some real choices here….

  5. Gered says

    Gents, I’m coming at it from a different angle since we develop a web- and mobile-based application called Pickup Sports, but the premise is the same.

    Our guideline for product development was “two clicks and you’re ready to play”. We determined too many choices for sports, games or activities were bad in our hyper-connected, convenience-packed world – especially for an web and mobile application. Our target demographic wants to find a game quickly and easily without getting bogged down in details or information input, so we reached for simplicity while creating the software. And since over 50% of phones in the US will be smartphones by 2012, it’s pretty important to keep things simple.

    Like I said, it’s a different angle than traditional CPG, but it’s the same brain that makes the decision to which game to play, or which candidate to vote for. Too many, and today’s consumer loses interest!

    Love your posts!

  6. Chris Witt says

    You’re right on.

    I remember — vaguely — a commercial that promoted a credit card that could be customized 20,375 ways. (I don’t remember the exact number, but it was big.) The tag line was something like: “Now you can choose the card that’s exactly right for you.” It shut me down. I thought 1) who has the time to sort through so many options (for a credit card!)?, and 2) thanks for giving me 20,374 opportunities to choose the wrong card.

    I want someone I trust to sort through the options and make one or two recommendations.

    Thanks for the insight.

  7. Liz says

    This choice fatigue is definately true,, from my recent experience.. just the other day I went with my fiance to buy a phone,, as usual I was taking my time to check all the different brands, functionality and prices.. moving from shop to shop… finally I told my fiance.. ‘I have had enough and I dont feel like owning a new phone anymore..’ and he said that he thought I really wanted to change my phone.. unknowingly I replied that there is too much choice and I cant seem to decide and dont know if I will ever decide,,, and even so, I am not planning to go out shopping for a phone anytime soon.

  8. Ryan says

    This is one thing we’re facing as we build up our clientele and eventually take small businesses through the process of building a site with video tutorials… do you let them know about all the different hosting choices, content management systems, and ways to market a site, or do you just create one guide that they follow without any other choices.

    I think ultimately we’ll go with one plan to avoid confusion and “paralysis” brought on by too many decisions.

    It was interesting to read this study, thank you.

  9. The Child says

    I wonder how our society would be if they were aware of this. People tend to think of their participation is insignificant. Therefore, they feel they can slack off. For us entrepreneurs, we can use this. One thing that annoys people (as this article states) is having numerous steps until the point of being tedious. However, people still like to feel in control. Finding a balance is a very important aspect.

    The Child

  10. James says

    @Ryan: I hate the idea of building a site using video tutorials. Some people ARE video-heads, and for them it’s no problem to watch someone talking them through a process, but for me it’s dead dull and boring. Also, I’m a fast reader, so I find I can get through the material much more quickly and conveniently by reading.

    Accordingly, perhaps you should consider giving both options to your prospects. I wouldn’t use a product that made me watch videos, and I’ll bet I’m not the only one.

    @Roger: Isn’t the choice-fatigue, and choicemaking in general, just another example of cognitive dissonance? Or perhaps it’s the opposite side of the telescope, increasingly smaller levels of consonance within the package of choices. Once the level of discrimination begins to be lowered, it seems to me that consumers rapidly reach a vanishing point, and THEN the choice becomes, “how do I get my brain out of this maze?”

    I have the same problem as the writer above, except, for me, it’s the dull incantation of the daily specials at restaurants that really ought to know better. That really only works if the server is entertaining, knows how to modulate, and really knows how to deliver. Most don’t. The only solution I’ve found is to ask them if they have a printed copy. And, yup, you guessed it. . . .most don’t.

  11. Roger Dooley says

    James, choice fatigue is a real phenomenon that has been studied in a variety of experiments. More generally, our brains do tire and use up their fuel. Experimenters have restored energy with a quick shot of energy from sugary fruit juice.

    “Too many choices” is a different phenomenon, I think, as it is not a sequential process. Rather, comparing many choices is difficult and a “no decision at all” outcome becomes more probable. The Columbia jam experiment that sold more preserves when there were three choices vs. two dozen is one example.


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