Ovens and the tyranny of choice

Date posted: 31/01/2020. Author: Jenny Holt

We all like choice and, in our capitalist consumer-based society, choice is everywhere – but is it always a good thing? Many psychologists think not, and there’s plenty of research out there to suggest they’re right. (Try some of the links at the bottom of the article and you’ll see what I mean.) The joy of limiting choices is that it makes choosing a lot easier, as I found out in December.

We had a bit of a minor crisis in our house just before Christmas when our oven broke and we were faced with the possibility of no Christmas dinner. Deciding that the only option was a new oven, we did a bit of internet research and concluded it was very difficult to see which of the many available we wanted. Even once we’d reduced the list to those that would fit the space available there was still a lot to choose from. The old one cooked and grilled things and was fine, so we could just get one like that. But I think the old one was quite old, as a lot of ovens do a lot more than that nowadays: they have settings for fast cook, slow cook, defrost and more. Did we want any of these? How could we work out what they all did and which ones we did want? If we were going to research it fully, it could take hours. And the reality is I don’t want to spend hours becoming an expert on ovens, I’m just not that interested; all I want is something that will cook things properly and not break easily.

Luckily the looming deadline of Christmas meant that there were other important criteria that needed to be met – namely that the new oven could be delivered and installed before 25 December. So rather than try to work out which oven we wanted, we went to the nearest shop which would sell us a new oven. Once we’d established a price range, and the sales assistant had established which ones they could deliver to our schedule, we got it down to three options, and picked the one with the buttons we liked most.

The point is that making choices about anything requires mental effort, and we just don’t have the time and energy to weigh up every single possibility for every choice we make, especially if there are lots of options. And this is true of everything in life, from buying household appliances to deciding where to invest our money or which employee benefits to take up.

We were (and are) very happy with our new oven, and I think this is in part due to the fact that our choice was restricted by the Christmas deadline. Research has shown that not only do people find too many options off-putting, they are less likely to be confident that they have made the right choice and therefore happy with what they finally end up with when there is a lot to choose from.

So next time you need to tell someone about all the options available to them, have a think about how you can keep things simple and reduce the mental effort they need to make good decisions. Otherwise there’s a risk they’ll disengage and make no decision, or a bad one. Alternatively, just get in touch with us for ideas on how to communicate your options clearly! 

Further reading:

If you enjoyed this, you can find out more on the psychological studies from the below.