The power of options

The library of Davis Center at University of Waterloo is a fairly popular place for students to spend their time studying. There is this quiet section, with separate study space for each student equipped with florescent lighting, where seems to be the most popular place in the library. Based on the time of day, if exams time is close or not, if it is a weekend or not, and some other parameters, two possible scenarios might happen; the place is either packed or is half empty. Now, the interesting part is how students behave while looking for a place in this section.

Lets consider the first scenario when the study area is packed;  in this case all desks are occupied and if you get lucky and be fast, you might be able to find an empty spot. So in this case you have to walk fast, focus on what you are looking for, and as soon as finding an empty spot,  you sit down without a second thought.

Nonetheless, there are more available seats on the second scenario as you walk in to the study area. Considering the first case, you should be happy with the first available spot. This time students show a totally different behavior (including me). Now that they have more options, they do not simply sit on the first available spot they find unlike the former situation. Students tend to have preferences, they take their time to walk around and find their **preferred **spot, although the seats are exactly the same.

What happened? Students developed preferences when they had more options, and were fully satisfied with their choice when there were no options available. After observing this behavior, I recalled the Barry Schwartz TED talk on the “Paradox of Choice”. In this talk he notes the availability of more choices made us more paralyzed and dissatisfied rather than free and satisfied.

You can observe such a scenario in your everyday life; in relationships for example,  you are always looking for a better match, if you think there is someone better for you out there, you will be unhappy about your relationship.  As another example, when I started my PhD, I had the option to get a job instead, so sometimes I feel finding a job could have been a better choice at that time, and thinking about the possible benefits of a job making me dissatisfied. If I only had the PhD option I could have been happier as I knew that was the only choice I had.  As a graduate student in Canada, during the winter I do more studying than summer, why? Good weather during the summer is the answer, I have the option to go out and enjoy the weather instead of sitting in my office without any windows (The funny thing about the Computer Science department at University of Waterloo is that it made out of glass but none of the offices have windows !!! Yet as you can see, this is another example of being dissatisfied as I am aware of the option of having an office with windows). Even reading a book such as David Allen’s  “Getting Things Done (GTD)”,  make you spend a week or two to find a good way of implementing it. The reason is that there are too many options for starting such a system.  I, myself ended up using a moleskine and a pen at the end.

This simple aspect of people’s behavior can be very powerful for marketing ideas. Dan Areily in “Predictably Irrational” give an example on the first bread maker. When bread makers were first introduced they were not selling good, as people could not find a reason to buy one. But when the company introduced the second bread maker which was more expensive than the first one, people started to buy the first bread maker and sales took off. People started to have something to compare the first bread maker with, and since it was priced more reasonably they found the urge to buy it.

One another obvious example, which you might have experienced, is the store sales and discounts. Not all but some people tend to buy everything that they find on sale, even if they do not need it. I have a friend who is addicted to shopping, it does not matter what it is as long as it is on sale, it is good to buy, Why? It is just about the good and victorious feeling that he has after finding a deal, and he can talk about it for hours. There is no doubt that you have experienced the same feeling, think of the moments you were talking about a good deal you found on your favorite gadget (or dress).

If you look it from another angle, these deals can make you dissatisfied as well. For instance, I was trying to buy a laptop backpack and found hundreds of them online, it took me almost two weeks to make a decision and choose one. However, at the end if you hear someone talking about a deal on backpack laptops or you happen to go to a store with a better and cheaper backpack you will be dissatisfied immediately. There is this documentary about how to make better decisions from BBC, the experiments in this documentary are surprisingly unbelievable. There is an experiment, in which two photos from different persons are shown to the participants. They choose one of them that they like more than the other, with a simple trick the photo they did not like is given to them instead of the one they ed more. Now, the participants are asked :why they like that person? (of course, without knowing that this person is not the one they chose). They start explaining the reasons although they did not have any interest in that person. This experiment shows how people can simply change their mind and be satisfied with the new situation, if the options are removed.

Tim Harford in his book, “The logic of Life”, gives another example about this issue. He provides an experiment over speed dating, where random people are brought to a room and they have limited time to talk to each other, and at the end,  each person pick a match based on their standards.  Tim notes that girls are more attracted to tall guys and guys are more attracted to thin girls. Imagine that, in a speed dating night there are 20 guys and 20 girls. Tim says that if there is a short guy among the guys and other guys are mostly tall, the short guy most probably will not get a date. However, if all 20 guys are short in the session, girls lower their expectations, compromise with the new situation and the chance of each short guy of being picked is higher. The story is the same for fat girls.  As you can see, adding or removing choices will make people act differently, although the short guy is still the same.

In conclusion, it seems that choice is a very powerful parameter that shapes the decisions we make. Providing more choices, or removing them can be easily used by businesses, governments and advertisers to control our life without us even knowing it.  As Barry Schwartz states:

“one should lower his expectations to be more happy”

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