SPEAKER 1: Welcome to Jake’s Jeans. Can I help you find something today?
SPEAKER 2: Hi, yeah, I’m just looking for a regular pair of jeans.
SPEAKER 1: Sure, sounds good. OK, would you like boot cut, flared, straight cut, wide leg, skinny, slim fit, cargo fit, or are you just looking for a loose fit?
SPEAKER 2: Just regular jeans.
SPEAKER 1: OK, well maybe you could tell me the style you’d like. We have pre-shrunk, distressed, acid wash, black denim, stretch, sharp denim, dark wash, and resin timber stitch.
SPEAKER 2: Oh, jeez. I don’t know. You know what? I’m going to have to think about it. I’ll come back.
KATY MILKMAN: Have you ever found yourself at a shop or maybe the grocery store staring with indecision at shelves filled with 20 varieties of the same product? Maybe shampoo or breakfast cereal or a new smartphone? How did it make you feel? Intuitively, and according to good old-fashioned economics, it seems like it’s always better to have more choice. It’s certainly better than no choice at all. But while more choice is sometimes a positive thing, it can very often get in the way of your ability to decide. Today on the podcast, we’ll look at what happens when we get overwhelmed by options. When it comes to making decisions about everything from jam …
SPEAKER 4: Right, we’ve got apricot, strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, orange marmalade …
KATY MILKMAN: To jeans …
SPEAKER 1: Cut, flared, straight cut, wide leg, skinny, slim fit, cargo fit …
KATY MILKMAN: To one of the most important events in your life …
JEN GLANTZ: So for the flowers on the table at the reception, would you like white roses with dinner plate dahlias or Juliet roses with hydrangeas?
KATY MILKMAN: I’m Dr. Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It’s a show about the psychology and economics behind our decisions. We bring you true stories involving high-stakes choices. And then we explore the latest research in behavioral science to help you make better judgements and avoid costly mistakes.
JEN GLANTZ: What kind of flowers are you going to have? Are you going to have someone walk you down the aisle? Will it be a buffet or a sit-down dinner? Is there going to be a DJ, or is there going to be a band? Do you want party favors? Are you …
KATY MILKMAN: This is Jen Glantz, noting a small sample of the many decisions that go into planning a wedding. Jen isn’t married yet herself, but she has a ton of experience with weddings.
JEN GLANTZ: So five and a half years ago, all of my friends were getting engaged. I’m from a small town in Florida. And a lot of my friends graduated college, and they married that person that they met in college, which was great, but I became always the bridesmaid. And before I knew it, I was a bridesmaid for my friends over a dozen times. And there was one night in particular where two friends of mine who I hadn’t spoken to in years, both of them asked me to be a bridesmaid. And I found it to be weird because we weren’t even that close. And I went to my roommate at the time, and I said, “Carrie, what is going on? All of these people are asking me to be a bridesmaid.” And she said, “Jen, that’s because you’re good at it.”
KATY MILKMAN: That feedback gave Jen an idea.
JEN GLANTZ: I thought to myself, if I could do this for friends and even people who I’m hardly friends with, why can I not do this for strangers? So I went to a website, I posted it out on their offering my services as a hired bridesmaid for strangers.
KATY MILKMAN: Almost overnight, Jen’s ad went viral and she received hundreds of emails asking for her services.
JEN GLANTZ: And within a couple of days, I had booked my first wedding for a bride named Ashley in Minnesota for just two weeks after the date I launched the ad.
KATY MILKMAN: Jen is now a professional bridesmaid based in Brooklyn, New York. She founded a company called Bridesmaid for Hire and has worked hundreds of weddings across the United States. Here’s the gist of what she does.
JEN GLANTZ: Strangers from all over the country will hire me to show up at their wedding, put on the bridesmaid dress, walk down the aisle, give the maid-of-honor speech, and when the wedding is over, never see them again. I’m the bride or the groom’s personal assistant, on-call therapist, social director, and peacekeeper. I am the people person. I am there to manage the emotions. I’m there to help during the entire wedding from when the groom is nowhere to be found or a bridesmaid needs help.
KATY MILKMAN: Although her job is all encompassing, Jen makes it clear that she’s not a wedding planner.
JEN GLANTZ: A lot of people hear this job title, and they go, “Oh, you’re a wedding planner.” But I’m not a wedding planner at all. That’s not my job, but I will help them make decisions as somebody who is unbiased, as that third party, I could walk in and say, “You know what? You are spending far too much money on a party favor that a lot of people aren’t going to take home with them.”
KATY MILKMAN: In 2019, the average wedding cost in America was almost $34,000. And behind that price tag are hundreds of decisions made by couples about different expenses while they’re planning their weddings. It can be overwhelming.
JEN GLANTZ: You have to decide if you want a wedding, or if you want to elope. You have to decide the date of the wedding. You have to decide the venue. You have to decide who you’re going to invite. You have to decide if you’re going to have bridesmaids or groomsmen or a wedding party at all. You have to decide if you’re going to have a bachelorette party or a bridal shower, what kind of flowers you’re going to have, are you going to have someone walk you down the aisle? Will it be a buffet or a sit-down dinner? Are there going to be a DJ, or is it a band? …
KATY MILKMAN: Beyond the big decisions like the venue and guest list, planning a wedding is also filled with small and sometimes trivial decisions.
JEN GLANTZ: I’ve worked with people calling me at 2:00 a.m. because they can’t figure out what kind of salad dressing to have on their salad. And while I try to talk them down and say, “You know what? Your guests are going to be happy with either Caesar or balsamic vinaigrette,” but when you’re faced with endless decisions and there’s a lot of things at stake, even something as small as what color napkin should we have becomes the ultimate thing that people get so bogged down by.
KATY MILKMAN: Having to make that many decisions can be exhausting, especially when each decision adds up financially. And you’re contending with high expectations from friends and family.
JEN GLANTZ: I worked with one client in particular, where she was faced with so many decisions that one day she just sat down and said, “I’m canceling everything. I know for sure I love the person I’m marrying, but I can’t tell you why I’m spending X amount of money on a DJ. And I can’t even decide what kind of flowers to have. And to be honest with you, I don’t even know what kind of venue I want anymore, because everyone is trying to tell me what to do.” And ultimately what she decided was to cancel everything. And they ran off to the courthouse, they got married, and that was it. I still follow up with this person until this day. And they still believe it was the best decision to make, even though it was the one that nobody was pushing for.
KATY MILKMAN: When it came time for Jen to plan her own wedding, she wanted to do things a little differently and avoid some of this burdensome decision-making.
JEN GLANTZ: So I got proposed to on July 19, 2019, and about an hour after I said, “Yes, I can’t wait to marry you,” I had a panic attack. And a lot of that panic attack stemmed from the fact that I had been to hundreds of weddings on my own, and I had witnessed firsthand the decision-making. And now I was faced with doing that. And I felt like I couldn’t.
I had all of these Excel spreadsheets opened up, I was trying to figure out what to do first. And I just figured out that I could not do this. And it wasn’t that I couldn’t do it, I didn’t want to do it.
KATY MILKMAN: Here was a professional bridesmaid balking at the idea of planning her own wedding. But once again, Jen had a creative solution to the problem.
JEN GLANTZ: And that is where I decided to build a website called Finally the Bride where I put every single possible wedding decision that I was going to have to make. I created polls for each one, and I sent it out to the universe. I said, “OK strangers of the world, you’ve included me in your most special day. Now you’re responsible for mine.”
KATY MILKMAN: On the first of the month, Jen releases new polls that are based on decisions she has to make in the weeks ahead. She’s had thousands of strangers vote on everything from the wedding budget to food to bachelorette party location to first dance songs.
JEN GLANTZ: And I take all of their feedback, all their information. And that’s how I make my decisions. There are definitely responses that have come through that I personally would not have chosen—things like open bar, which is a lot more expensive. Then there’s of course been ones I don’t know if I ever would have thought about this before. One of the things people voted on was that, yes, we should examine perhaps getting a prenup before we get married. And that’s of course a very awkward topic to talk about with your spouse, let alone the world. But because they voted on the fact that we should look into getting a prenup, we met with a divorce lawyer. And again, this is not something we had ever planned to do before we got engaged. So that’s been really awesome to see other people’s perspectives and also challenge my perspective on it.
KATY MILKMAN: Back when the coronavirus pandemic hit, it forced Jen and her fiancé to rethink their plans to get married this year. Fortunately, they’ve been getting help from some of the thousands of people who’ve already voted.
JEN GLANTZ: Things have gotten really interesting recently because a lot of our plans have been disrupted by the coronavirus. So a lot of these voters, they had a decision made for me. And now they’re coming back on, figuring out how I can pivot this day, because it’s very unlikely that we’re going to get married in 2020. I walked into this project and I thought, “You know what? I am 100% committing to the opinions and the votes of strangers. And I’m OK with that.” So even though right now, a lot’s up in the air and they’re currently deciding if we should do a virtual wedding or if we should just elope and call it a day or what it should look like, I am having so much fun taking information and advice from strangers, especially in an organized way. It has completely taken the pressure off of me having to make any of these decisions at all.
KATY MILKMAN: And with the decision-making burden lifted, Jen’s been able to make other choices in her life faster.
JEN GLANTZ: I think because I’m having strangers vote on the majority of my decisions, when I am faced with decisions here and there, I make them a lot faster because now I have less decisions on my personal slate to figure out. If I had a hundred plus things to decide on for this wedding, I don’t think we’d be married until 2031. I struggle with the fear of, well, what if I’m wrong? And what if I can’t fix it? And I think a lot of people struggle with that same fear too. The world can’t vote on my life forever, but I do think, through a process like this, it has shown me that it’s OK to go with any decision. And even though maybe it’ll be a little funky and odd and weird, it could be memorable that way too.
KATY MILKMAN: And what advice does Jen have for all those engaged couples out there, if they’re not interested in crowdsourcing their decisions?
JEN GLANTZ: I think if I can give advice to anybody out there who is planning a wedding, what I would say is, right now, prioritize the five biggest decisions that you care about. What are those five things that are make or break for you that you absolutely want to hug hello and deal with? And then what are the decisions that you can put aside, that maybe you can get the advice from people you love and trust to help you make and make fast. I always helped my clients make decisions, again, by prioritizing which ones they have to make and when. I always give them deadlines. And then I always break them up so that they don’t feel like they have a hundred decisions this month. Can you make five decisions this week? Next week, can you make another three? And by the end of the month, you’ll have a huge part of that list checked off.
KATY MILKMAN: Jen Glantz runs Bridesmaid for Hire and is based in Brooklyn, New York. You can find links in the show notes or at schwab.com/podcast.
Jen Glantz had enough experience with weddings to know that she would face a mountain of decisions in planning her own nuptials. And she came up with some creative ways to crowdsource those decisions so they’d be off her plate. But why is it that facing lots of choices, even about something fun like a wedding, can be so unpleasant that, like Jen, we’re often desperate to avoid doing it?
Traditional economic theory says that more choice should always be better than less, but it turns out that in certain situations, more choices can produce anxiety, reduce satisfaction, and even lead us to abandon the decisions we’d planned to make altogether. When too many choices sap our happiness and lead us to walk away from purchases we would have otherwise made, it’s called choice overload. Barry Schwartz is an emeritus professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, whose bestselling book The Paradox of Choice helps explain why more choices are not always better. He joined me to chat from his home in Oakland, California. Barry, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it.
BARRY SCHWARTZ: Thanks for having me, Katy.
KATY MILKMAN: I’m thrilled to have you on the show. And the first thing I wanted to do is just ask you if you could define choice overload. What is it exactly?
BARRY SCHWARTZ: So what choice overload is, is that although it seems obvious and self-evident that the more choice we have, the better off we are, there’s evidence that that’s not true. A life with no choice is unbearable, but as you keep adding options, instead of making people better off, instead of making people feel free or more liberated, you end up producing paralysis, and you end up with people, even when they make good decisions, feeling like they could have made better ones. And so it’s such a surprise that there could ever be too many options that a lot of attention has been drawn to the fact that at least sometimes for some people there can be too many options.
KATY MILKMAN: It is really interesting. And really counterintuitive. Could you talk a little bit about some of the early research showing that choice overload can change people’s decisions and also their happiness with those decisions?
BARRY SCHWARTZ: Sure, so the classic study was done by Sheena Iyengar now 20 years ago, where they provided expensive imported jams in a gourmet food store in Palo Alto. And whenever this store offered a new product, they would set it up on a display table so that people could taste the product. And so one day, they put out 24 different flavors of this jam and people could stop by and taste. And if they did, they’d get a coupon that would save them a dollar on any jam they bought. And another day, they offered six flavors of the same jam. And again, if you stopped buy and taste it, you’d get a dollar off on any jam you bought. And what they found is that more people were attracted to the table when there were 24 jams than when there were six. Many fewer people actually bought jam. In fact, a tenth as many people bought jam when they encountered a large display than when they encountered a small display. So that was what defined the choice overload phenomenon.
KATY MILKMAN: So could you talk a little bit about why we think that happens? What’s going on that leads these choices to make people less likely to actually make a purchase or invest time?
BARRY SCHWARTZ: I think it’s not totally clear the why. I have my own account, which I will share with you. And let me just say that this phenomenon is not uncontroversial as with all things in psychology research. It doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the more options people have, the better off they are, the happier they are. Sometimes choice overload happens, but your listeners should know that this is not something that you can simply take to the bank and assume that it will always be true. It will be true sometimes for some people, much of the time for some people. Now the question of why, I think one possibility, is that when there are a lot of options, you start making comparisons, looking for the option that is perfect in every way. It’s the cheapest. It’s the most reliable. It’s the easiest to use. And you don’t do that when there are only a few options, but when there are lots of options, you do do that.
And so a story I tell in my book about buying jeans, when all you had to choose from was Lee’s and Levi’s, you didn’t expect the jeans you bought to be perfect. They just fit you however they fit you, and if you couldn’t stand it, you didn’t buy jeans. When there are hundreds or thousands of kinds of jeans to choose from, well now somewhere out there, there ought to be the pair of jeans that is perfect. And so you look and you assess and you try on, and you get great jeans, but they aren’t perfect. And you feel like you’ve got to keep looking.
And so I think it tortures people. It drives people completely crazy. The most salient current example is choosing something to watch on Netflix. I can’t tell you how many people, including me, have spent an hour trying to decide what to watch on Netflix and either watch nothing or watch Friends reruns for the 1,100th time. You just watch something familiar because you can’t figure out which damn movie to watch. And it seems like paradise. You get thousands of movies to choose from, and you end up going, “Why am I doing this?” So I think we’re all experiencing that more than we’d like to be these days.
KATY MILKMAN: Yeah, well, you make a really interesting point about it too. And I want to dig into that for a second, actually, which is if choice overload is a problem that can arise with a lot of frequency that we can all relate to, then why is it that retailers and online streaming services like Netflix keep offering so many choices? Why are Amazon and Walmart, for instance, doing this and still thriving?
BARRY SCHWARTZ: I think that’s a really deep question. Now there are a couple of answers. One answer that people might give is, what that shows is, that my story can’t be true because if it was true, some smart retailer would figure it out and offer limited options. And let me point out that the stores people are happiest shopping in are Costco and Trader Joe’s, both of which offer extremely limited options. I think the reason that retailers don’t take advantage of this is that there’s a kind of ideology that is deeply embedded in our culture that when you add options, you’re bound to make somebody better off, and you make nobody worse off. And so just keep adding more and more options, and in general, welfare is improved. And let me say, when the question is, should I have two options or four? The answer is four. But when the question is, should I have 25 options or 40? The answer is 25. For most of our history, we were in the domain of two options or four, not 25 or 40. So in some ways, it’s a new problem.
KATY MILKMAN: Yeah, it’s really interesting. It’s interesting also that when you talked about why these things happen, actually the answer to both why choice overload arises and why retailers keep offering so many options was regret and a fear of regret. So it’s actually really interesting that it drives both sides of the equation, I think.
BARRY SCHWARTZ: I think that’s right. And in the book I wrote, I make a big deal about how easy it is to regret any decision that isn’t perfect. And as near as I can tell, nobody ever makes a decision that they think is perfect. Opportunities for regret are just incredibly ripe, and what happens is the more you regret your decision, the less satisfied you are with it, even if it’s a great decision.
KATY MILKMAN: Let me ask a really fundamental question—you alluded to it—which is about how many choices do we actually need to experience choice overload. Is it three? Is it 10? Is it 30? Is it 100? When does this happen?
BARRY SCHWARTZ: Right, and we don’t know the answer to that. I think the best answer I can give is that it depends both on the domain that you’re choosing in and on the person. So if you’re a car nut, then you want to be able to examine as many possible automobiles as possible. More, the better. It’s like you roll up your sleeves, let me at it. And you probably don’t feel that way when you’re buying breakfast cereal. And so to some degree, we will tolerate or even embrace large numbers of options in some parts of life and not in others. And the pity is that we can’t simply shut them out of consciousness when we don’t care. You go to buy cereal, and there they all are. And you say to yourself, “I don’t care what cereal I buy,” but meanwhile, you do care what cereal you buy, although you wish you didn’t.
So I think we don’t know. The studies that have been done have really large choice sets are very large—25, 30. Small choice sets tend to be six or fewer. There’ve been a couple of studies that tried to map this and suggesting that eight, 10, 12 is the right number, is the sweet spot where you give people enough variety that anyone can find something, but not so much that they’re overwhelmed. But I hesitate to generalize on the basis of those studies because they were choices of really trivial things like pens. And there’s no reason to think that your choice of pen and your choice of job and your choice of automobile and your choice of computer are all going to have the same sweet spot.
KATY MILKMAN: I know there’s been some debate in the literature about the robustness of choice overload and that there was a paper published about a decade ago, suggesting maybe it doesn’t even exist at all. What is your take on that debate?
BARRY SCHWARTZ: So there have been two papers that did what is called meta-analysis, where you combine a whole bunch of different studies that have been published, and then you treat it as one gigantic data set, and you try to assess whether there’s an effect and how big it is. And the first paper showed that the average effect size was essentially zero. Meaning there’s nothing there. What that paper obscured is that almost every study gets effects. It’s just that some of them show more choice is better, and some of them show more choice is worse. And when you average that together, you get an effect size of about zero. About five years later, another meta-analysis was done that showed fairly, to my mind, robustly that there is a too-much-choice effect, and that it seems to be mediated by how complex the decision is and by how clear people’s preferences are.
If it’s a complex decision and you don’t really know much about what you want, then you are a target for choice overload. If it’s a less complex decision and/or you do know exactly what you want, then basically the more options you have, the better off you are. So I believe it’s real. Although as I said before, I don’t think it happens all the time with all people. And when I give talks on this, a point I make right at the start is, listen, this is a problem of the privileged. Most people in the world would trade their problems for the ones I’m going to be talking about in a heartbeat. Again, the reason people have been interested in too much choice is that it’s that the ideology suggests that that should never be a problem for anyone. So it’s surprising that it is a problem for some people some of the time.
KATY MILKMAN: So why is it that people can’t just ignore the options they don’t want and actually benefit from having more choices. I don’t totally understand why that’s not possible. Could you explain?
BARRY SCHWARTZ: I think I can explain. I speculated about it when I wrote this book, but I had no evidence. And in the last couple of years, Nathan Cheek, Eldar Shafir, and I have collected some data that speaks to this question. And here’s the logic. When all you have to choose from is Lee’s and Levi’s, how much do the jeans you choose tell the world about who you are as a person? It’s just jeans, and there isn’t enough variety in the world to capture the variety of human beings. So it’s not a big deal. You make your choice, and you go onto the next thing in your life.
When there are 2,000 kinds of jeans to choose from, well, now all of a sudden, when you choose jeans, you are not just covering your behind, you are also making a statement to the world about your identity. And what we have found is that even with really trivial decisions like what music video to watch, large choice sets, people say that the thing they choose is a statement to the world about who they are. And if you view your decisions as statements about identity, there are no longer any trivial decisions.
KATY MILKMAN: Barry, I’m curious how you apply what you’ve learned about choice overload to your own life.
BARRY SCHWARTZ: Well there is this lore that psychologists always study their own deficiencies. In my case, at least with the respect of this topic, that’s not true. I find a restaurant I like, and I just keeping going back to that restaurant. I live in a place where there’s 12 good restaurants every 100 feet. I always go to the same restaurants. When I go to those restaurants, I always order the same dish. Are there better things on the menu? There might be—who the hell cares? What I’m getting is wonderful. It’s good enough for me. So I have never actually had a problem with this, but what I have come to understand is that I stumbled onto what I advise people to adopt deliberately themselves. And that is the appreciation that in virtually every decision you make in life, good enough is good enough.
And if you look for good enough, then the large set of options need not be such a problem because you don’t need to examine all of them. You just examine them until you find one that meets your standards, and then you stop looking. That is in fact how I have gone through my life making decisions. Not because I was smart enough to appreciate that this is the better way to live, but it’s just the way I am. And I have come to believe that I lucked into an approach to decision-making that is probably the most useful thing we can do to save ourselves from the choice overload that is plaguing so many of our peers. So that’s what I do. I remind myself every day that good enough is good enough.
KATY MILKMAN: Barry, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I really appreciate it.
BARRY SCHWARTZ: Thank you, Katy. You ask wonderful questions. This was a lot of fun.
KATY MILKMAN: Barry Schwartz is the Dorwin P. Cartwright Professor Emeritus of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College. He’s written many books on work, wisdom, and human nature. His 2004 book The Paradox of Choice explored choice overload and argued that more is often less when it comes to decisions. You can find a link to the book and more in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast.
An overabundance of options can impact all kinds of financial decisions, causing people to continually put off important tasks they know they need to do. And it’s not only the decisions you make while accumulating assets. In fact, a recent episode of the Financial Decoder podcast titled “How Should You Give to Charity?” explored how choice overload and other biases complicate charitable giving—and how certain charitable vehicles aim to simplify things. Check it out at schwab.com/financialdecoder or wherever you get your podcasts.
Many of us are inundated with choices on a daily basis, and behavioral science shows there can be real costs to facing so many choices. The solution, as Barry Schwartz mentioned, is to let good enough be good enough. There’s a formal term for this that was coined in the 1950s by economics Nobel laureate Herbert Simon. It’s called satisficing. Inspired by algorithms used by computers to reach good but not perfect solutions when their processing capacity was limited, it’s a decision-making strategy that aims for an adequate result in a short period of time, rather than the perfect solution, especially if that perfect solution could take ages to find. One of the reasons we find it difficult to just satisfice rather than dwelling on all the options we face when we’re buying a new gadget or flower arrangement for our wedding or even stocks is thanks to something Barry Schwartz calls the curse of discernment.
As our choice sets expand, we unfortunately become more discerning, and lower-quality items, like simple no-frills blue jeans that we used to find perfectly acceptable are no longer good enough when we realize there are hundreds of better options out there. Rising expectations follow rising experiences, and we can feel like we’re running in place, even when our lives and choice sets are improving. The stakes for small decisions seem to get higher, and those decisions take longer to make or are abandoned completely.
Obviously, this is not ideal. Sometimes, particularly when choices are complex and you’re not an expert, it might be useful to limit your search ahead of time, before you get caught up in finding the perfect thing. If you’re choosing, say, a laptop, look at five different ones, not 25. Personally, I’m grateful to organizations like Consumer Reports or U.S News that simplify choices by rating products or schools or doctors, and I use their guidance to limit my choice sets. If you can avoid browsing options in areas where you’re not an expert and don’t enjoy the experience, you’ll save a lot of time, and chances are good that what you choose will be just fine.
You’ve been listening to Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If you’ve enjoyed the show, we’d be really grateful if you’d leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. You can also subscribe to the show for free in your favorite podcasting apps. And if you’d like to get my newsletter, which features even more content from the interviews I do on Choiceology with scientists, you can sign up at katymilkman.com/newsletter. Next time, we’ll look at a chapter in the early history of baseball that illustrates a peculiar pattern two Nobel laureates first noticed in the 1980s about the way we decide what’s fair and what’s not. I’m Katy Milkman. Talk to you next time.
SPEAKER 7: For important disclosures, see the show notes or visit schwab.com/podcast.