When too many choices are not a good thing!

Latest News Thursday, 11 June 2020

Our kids grow up in a world believing that it is their right to have choice. And most would believe that the greater the choice, the better the outcome for them as a little consumer. It is probably not until they are older (and wiser) that they come to realise that ‘choice paralysis’ is real! Just think of how we stand there in the supermarket wondering what toothpaste to choose. One would think choice is a good thing, but it can be too overwhelming for many. A classic study by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper – now referred to as the Jam Study – tells us something about too much choice. (The full research ‘When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing?’ can be found here.)

In a local food market, a display table with 24 beautiful jams were laid out and attracted many people. They stopped and marvelled at the variety of jams on offer and taste-tested many. But they didn’t buy. On another occasion, 6 jams were laid out and attracted an equal number of passers-by. There was a bit of taste-testing ….. and a great deal more buying! Iyengar and Lepper found was that while the big display table (with 24 jams) generated more interest, people were far less likely to purchase a jar of jam than in the case of the smaller display (about ten times less likely). The study shows that while choice seems appealing, at first sight, choice overload generates the wrong results.

It was also the fact that customer satisfaction – based on taste-testing – was lower when 24 jams were laid out proving that choice can demotivate the customer. Similar studies have been conducted time and again across different industries with the same results. These studies often remind us that less is more.

And what about children? Do they handle choices better? Should they be given choices? In her study, (Are you offering your children too many choices? found here) Michal Maimaran found that ‘there can be negative consequences to giving children lots of options to choose from. In several studies she showed that when kids pick from a large set of options, they spend less time engaged with their choice than when they pick from a small set’. (Is this why some children don’t find a book when they go to the library as there are too many to choose from?). 

In a similar study to the jam one mentioned above, children were asked to choose a book from a wide abundance compared to a group that were asked to choose from a small number of ‘Curious George’ books. The children who had the limited choice were far more engaged in their books than those who had an abundance of choice. There may be too much of a cognitive load placed on children when they have to choose when they deal with abundance. And the burden of having to make that choice is also enough to disengage them from the reading task alone. 

This is what seriously frustrates many of us about today’s parenting – getting down to eye level and asking them to take part in every decision-making process. I have strong views about how counterproductive this is and how it is more often about not wanting to be blamed or wanting to maintain a ‘friendship’ (as one relinquishes the role of parent). I believe that the asking of what children want to eat, what they want to wear, where they want to go on holiday etc is often designed to avoid the fallout of the tantrum. It is an avoidance of simply saying “no” or having confidence in one’s decision regardless of outcome. Not surprisingly, if it hard to say “no” to the toddler, you can only imagine how hard it is to say “no” to the teenager! 

Perhaps this is the time to be reminded of our school motto - “na’aseh v’nishma“ – do first, understand later - (or more crudely, the Nike equivalent “Just do it”). Yes, the Jewish people promised first to observe/obey the laws of the Torah, and only afterward to study these laws. And I am pretty sure Moses didn’t ascend the mountain and call out to everyone, “Guys, which laws would you like to obey today?”

Is there a parenting parallel? Can we tell our children (not ask, consult, negotiate) because they will eventually come to understand that the limited choice option (or no-choice option) was made in good faith and with good intention with their best interests at heart. And that we will make these decisions because that’s what we do as a caring, responsible parent who is in control. 

I hope you can join the dots in my article – from jars of jam, to Moses, to parents taking control. They are spread apart somewhat but they connect. And they are dots worth connecting!  


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