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Fewer Choices and Attention


Explanations > Perception > Attention > Fewer Choices

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



Give them only a few choices, rather than a larger number of options. Two or three alternatives are often ideal.

If you can, assess them first and then give them a custom-selected subset of options. These may be equally interesting for them, or may include just the option you want them to choose plus one or two other alternatives that are less desirable.

When selecting alternatives, carefully about how they will compare the choices against one another and against other reference standards they may use.


A shoe retailer simplifies their storefront, going from a clutter of many types of shoes to a selected few products, each displayed with care.

A sales person offers a person a red shirt or a yellow shirt, even though they carry many other hues.


Our evolutionary past has led us to constantly scan our field of vision to watch for opportunities and especially threats. The more things we see, the greater the effort we have to put into this constant scanning, and the less attention we can consequently pay to any one thing.

When there are a number of things in front of us, we have a choice in which one to look more closely at. All else being equal, we will tend to keep scanning everything and not settle our attention for long on any one item. When we are unsure, we tend to choose by comparing items in pairs. With a wide choice, that is a lot of comparisons!

When we have multiple choices, sometimes we worry that we will make the wrong choice, and so get trapped by anticipated regret as we think to a future where we feel bad about having chosen badly.

If the number of things to look at is reduced, we will naturally spend more time attending to each of the few choices we have. We are also more likely to choose one of them.

Stephen Worchel and colleagues offered subjects cookies in a jar. One jar had ten cookies in and the other jar had two. Subjects preferred the cookies from the jar with two in, even though they were the same cookies.

Iyengar and Lepper presented 24 or 6 varieties of jam in a gourmet store on different days. The larger arrays attracted more people, but they tasted about the same and bought far less. 30% of people shown 6 varieties bought a jar. Only 3% shown the 24 jars bought one.

This brings up a useful additional point: larger arrays create initial attract, at least. They give a first impression of being able to satisfy any need. But when the person gets up close, the question of where their attention should go next may be confounded.

So what?

When people must choose, minimize the choice they have to make. You can use a wide choice as a marketing ploy, but quickly get to smaller numbers when they come to choosing. Also, design the choice with an understanding of how they may make comparisons with the options (and other things such as competing products), such that the choice you want is clearly the best choice).

See also

Iyengar S.S. and Lepper M.R. (2000). When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 6, 995-1006

Worchel, S., Lee, J., and Adewole, A. (1975). Effects of supply and demand on ratings of object value. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 906-914


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