A by-product of technological abundance, “choice overload” sometimes leads to indecision
Today’s consumers have no lack of options. Swept up in a saturated marketplace, there’s no way to escape the perpetual pitch of advertisements that seem to blend seamlessly into one another and friendly voices making claims about products being faster, smarter and less expensive than last year’s models.
It’s not only the nature of capitalism but that of technology itself. In keeping pace with the redoubling of marketing efforts, companies at the forefront of innovation have redoubled their progress in the production of new technology, flooding the average consumer with more choices than they can manage.
Is the laptop at the store more or less expensive than those that sell online? And of those that sell online, are there cheaper alternatives? And of the cheaper alternatives, how does each option compare in quality with the original item of interest? And where is a standard benchmark to judge these differences?
While competition encourages companies to improve their products, it also negatively impacts the consumer. The time they invest in gathering information on all of their possible choices increases with the number of options available, leading to something that researcher Barry Schwartz calls “choice overload.”
The Effects of Choice Overload
Many people have browsed an online retailer’s site tirelessly, compiling a list of similar products they intend to compare before making a purchase. As they continue to shop, however, the list only grows and grows, and before long, they’ve exhausted all of their patience, content to compromise.
“Decision fatigue” is a natural part of the human condition. The mind can only sort through and catalog so many options before it’s no longer willing or able to continue. This lack of energy is a primary factor behind impulse buys and a direct effect of the overload that consumers often experience.
One study published in Natural Human Behavior examines choice overload using MRIs to evaluate subjects’ brain activity while choosing between differently-sized sets of items. Interestingly, the researchers found that adding a dominant choice to a set helped offset the costs of choice overload.
For businesses, this begs the question: which companies will emerge as the dominant choices in industries flooded with consumer options?
Examples of “Choice Overload”
With many popular smartphone apps, the initial concept is disassembled, reassembled in different colors and branded under a new name to capitalize on the strength of the original idea. The number of copycat apps that followed in the wake of Angry Bird’s success is troubling, and though none of them are likely to get their own motion picture, they still draw from the creator’s profits.
But the nature of any industry is to innovate and build upon the progress of others to create a better product or service. The app Lyft did this with one of the first ride-sharing services, Uber, seeing an opportunity to compete with its predecessor. Since then, the ride-sharing market has seen new contributions all over the world from companies like Bosch and Sony.
Inside the home, consumers have an even more extensive selection of entertainment options. Beyond the enormous community of creators on free sites like YouTube, streaming services offer high-production television shows and movies shortly after they air. Many are similar to Netflix and Hulu, but other brands like Disney have shown interest in starting their own services.
How does a person begin to digest all of their new options in an ever-expanding network of competing companies? There’s no simple answer. Much like the laptop conundrum posed earlier, one question begets another question begets another question, leading consumers down a rabbit hole with a dozen open tabs, no closer to a solution that will put their minds at ease.
Tomorrow’s Tech Landscape
A surplus of options isn’t a terrible problem to have. But with new companies emerging every day — and from these companies new products, and from these products new iterations — making the best decision is no longer such a simple process. And it’s fair to appreciate the subtle irony in that.
Too much technology sometimes complicates things.
Written by: Holly Welles
Holly Welles is a real estate writer who covers the latest market trends in everything from residential to commercial spaces. She is the editor behind her own blog, The Estate Update, and curates more advice on Twitter.