Happily Ever After: A Paradox of Choice

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If you’ve ever seen the original Willy Wonka movie starring Gene Wilder, you’ll remember the final line in the film:

Willy Wonka: “But Charlie, don’t forget what happened to the man who got everything he always wanted.”

Charlie Bucket: “What Happened?”

Willy Wonka: “He lived happily ever after.”

The truth is very different.

We like to imagine that giving customers what they want will make them happier. But – as Barry Schwartz demonstrated in his book The Paradox of Choice – there’s a substantial amount of evidence that an abundance of choice makes people more susceptible to negative emotions.

When we’re presented with an abundance of choice:

  • We compare our choices;
  • We question whether we made the right decisions;
  • We wonder what might have been if we chose differently;
  • We find it harder to make decisions;
  • And we are less happy with the decisions we make – continuing to compare our choice after the fact.

In 1995, Colombia University professor of business Sheena Iyengar conducted her famous Jam experiment.

In this experiment, Professor Iyengar set up a booth selling a selection of Wilkin & Sons jams.

Every few hours, she and her research assistants would switch the jams – from a selection of 24 jams to a group of just six, or back again.

The team then measured how many people visited their stall, how many jams were sampled, how many sales were made, and how many jars were purchased.

What’s most interesting about this study wasn’t that – on average – visitors to the stall sampled the same number of jams (2), no matter how many jams were on display.

It wasn’t that 50% more people visited the stall when a larger selection of jams was displayed.

The most interesting part of this study was that 10x more people who visited the stall – when it displayed a smaller selection of jams – chose to buy!

Although people were more likely to be attracted to a jam stall selling 24 jams, overall the stall made more sales (from fewer customers!) when just six jams were displayed!

This study demonstrates our ability to make decisions when there is a lot of choice.

A lot of choice means a firehose of information to filter.

So when we’re presented with a lot of options – although we’re initially attracted by the freedom of choice – studies have consistently shown that we’re more likely to make no decision.


Going back to our Willy Wonka quote – “…Don’t forget what happened to the man who got everything he always wanted…. He lived happily ever after.”

As Professor Iyengar’s jam study showed with the higher number of people who visited the larger jam stall – we WANT the freedom of choice – and we’re attracted to the opportunities it brings.

And even though we struggle with making a decision – does simply choice make us happier?

This wasn’t measured in Professor Iyengar study. She didn’t follow up with jam purchasers to measure customer satisfaction after making a purchasing decision.

But other researchers have done this for her – and have consistently shown that limiting the number of choices we make leads us to be happier.

One place we can see this effect is in the world of dating and relationships.

Men and women are marrying later than they ever have in history – suggesting it is taking us longer to find someone worth settling down with.

And a big part of the reason for this is because of the Paradox of Choice.

There’s never been more choice in the dating pool than there is today – the opportunities for comparison are abundant.

In 15 minutes, you could set up a dating profile on a site like eHarmony – or an app like Tinder – and begin choosing from a pool of literally thousands of potential mates in your own city – or millions by changing your settings to target potential mates around the world.

We question whether we’ve made the right decision – and this makes us delay making a decision, and more likely to question the decisions we make.

In her book “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough”, Lori Gottlieb controversially encourages people to ask “Am I happy?” rather than “Is this the best I can do?”.

Gottlieb’s contention is that leaving the infinite possibility for comparisons behind, you stop wasting time chasing an elusive Prince (or Princess) Charming who might not even exist in the near-infinite dating pool.

Ironically, we’re looking for someone who will make us happy.

But – in doing so – we end up comparing our potential mates against other options – both real and available, or imagined.

As one interviewee commented in Gottlieb’s book:

“I’m a 27-year-old man, and I’ve dated plenty, but the idea that I might get married and find someone better six months, two years, five years later – that terrifies me.”

Perhaps the very thing that draws us to the “big jam stall” – the freedom of choice – is the reason why we’re then less happy with any choice we make… Because making any choice means we no longer have the same freedom to choose differently.

Gottlieb noted that she herself:

“…wasn’t looking for a perfect 10 in a mate – an 8 would be great…. [But] what if I want a different 8 [later]?”

At age 43, having kept her options open, Gottlieb noted that friends and colleagues who had “settled” for good-yet-imperfect men earlier wound up in relatively happy relationships with good men who were good husbands and fathers.

This is the reason why Gottlieb suggests changing the way we think of relationships – and moving away from asking “Is this the best I can do?” to asking simpler, more introspective, and less outward-facing questions like “Am I happy?“.

This kind of questioning takes the focus off the infinite opportunity for choice that exists outside of a single relationship – and narrows our focus to a single decision – whether or not we are happy.

Interestingly, Gottlieb’s interview with married couples suggests this is not always easy.

Woven into the book is a fascinating insight into the potential reason why divorce rates are at historical highs, and happiness within marriages continues to decline – found within Gottlieb’s interviews with married couples. It’s when people continue to compare the less favourable traits of their partner against a pool of imaginary partners who don’t have those traits, the happiness expressed with marriage declines in these conversations.

In a marketing context, if your goal is customer satisfaction, then providing your customers with MORE choice is probably making them LESS happy to buy from you.


There are countless other examples of where limiting the choices available to us helps us to live a better life – but in addition to the happiness and efficiency we receive from limiting choices, we also become far more effective at making the right decision when we have fewer decisions to make.

Although we imagine our mind as having infinite ability to process information and make decisions – the more decisions we make, the poorer quality our decisions are.

This process is called “Decision Fatigue”.

A common trait among high-performing leaders is that they remove the need to choose from their lives – and use this increased decision-making power to make higher quality decisions that matter.

Steve Jobs removed the need to make decisions about his wardrobe – so that he could focus on other aspects of his life.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Barack Obama noted:

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits.”

The reason was simple.

“I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

In fact, he and fellow Democrat – current Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel – often joke that when they retire, they’re going to open a t-shirt shop in Hawaii that sells one item – t-shirts, unprinted, in white, size medium – and never make another work-related decision ever again.

In one study on decision fatigue, over 1,100 parole decisions were analysed. In this study, judges were far less likely to grant parole to prisoners who appeared later in the day – after the judge had already had a long day of decision-making.

In fact, prisoners who appeared in the morning were granted parole roughly 70% of the time, while those who appeared toward the end of the day were paroled less than 10% of the time.

If you check your ecommerce data – you may notice a similar trend.

If you sell impulse items, you’re more likely to see an uptick in your sales conversion rate towards the end of the day, when decision fatigue has set in and your customers have less mental energy to make rational and deliberate purchasing decisions.

On the other hand, if you sell items that are selected based on deliberate and rational choice (e.g. you sell via whitepapers), you’ll probably notice a decline in sales conversion rates late in the day.

Tiny tweaks can make a massive difference to your sales. In the examples above, the jam stall made 10x more sales when fewer options were presented… And prisoners were 7x more likely to get parole if their case was heard at the right time of day. I can help you to find these “leverage points” for your business – and make far more sales, with far less effort. Ask me how.


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