Less Is More When It Comes to Choices—Fewer Options, Better Decisions

Making a short list of choices makes decision-making easier

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Vishton has given us a number of tips to improve our decision-making skills. Here he explains how to avoid analysis paralysis.

Man analyzing his decisions
When two choices have relatively the same amount of risk and benefit, you can gain greater satisfaction by committing to one and never looking back. Photo by fizkes / Shutterstock

Making Better Choices

Having a lot of options can be exciting, but it can also be overwhelming. Conversely, having fewer options can lead to greater clarity and can help you to make better decisions.

When it comes to making better decisions, research suggests that engaging in mental time travel into the future—that is, imagining how your decision will impact your future self—carries positive impacts, making you less likely to engage in self-destructive behavior. On the other hand, evidence suggests that mental time traveling backward to previous decisions can have negative consequences.

If you want to be happier with the decisions you make, then you should make them firmly and stick with them. When two choices seem to involve the same amount of risks and benefits, or positives and negatives, then greater satisfaction can be obtained by committing to one selection and never looking back.

Another way to improve your reasoning about different choices is to start with fewer choices. We have a strong desire to maximize our options in life. 

Starting with Fewer Options

Dr. Vishton offers the counterintuitive tip that you should, whenever possible, reduce the number of options you have to a relatively small number—ideally around six. Across a variety of studies, when the choices are limited to six or fewer, human decision-making seems to function more optimally.

When deciding where to go on vacation, you could start by generating a long list of dozens, even hundreds, of possible destinations and then start narrowing that list down until you have only one left. That would be the winner. 

An alternative approach that works better in most situations is to quickly generate several options, between about five and 10, and then stop coming up with more ideas. You would choose from that short initial list. 

You’ll likely feel uneasy as you do this. Just think of the hundreds or thousands of options that you’re dismissing without careful consideration. 

The perfect vacation, the perfect car, perfect investment fund might be out there, and you just eliminated it from consideration. However, evidence suggests that you’ll make better decisions and be more satisfied with the outcomes if you limit your choices to a short list of options.

Iyengar’s Jam Study

The research supporting this counterintuitive view of the world starts with a simple study performed by Columbia Business professor Sheena Iyengar, widely known as the expert on choice, and her collaborators when she was still a graduate student at Stanford University. 

There was a grocery store nearby that sold 348 different kinds of jellies and jams. The experimenters set up a tasting booth to let people try different jams. Supermarkets often use this free sample method to encourage people to buy their products.

Half of the time, the experimenters set out 24 different jams. Half of the time, the booth only had six jams available to try. 

Many more people stopped to try the jam when there were 24 choices, and they obviously stayed at the booth longer, but when there were only six jams offered, the customers were far more likely to actually buy jam. With the 24-jam display, about three percent of visitors purchased jam. With the six-jam display, 30 percent of customers made a purchase.

This study demonstrates that when given fewer options, people are more likely to follow through with a decision. This is why fine-dining restaurants and high-end clothing stores tend to present customers with fewer choices. Therefore, when making a difficult decision, you’ll make the process easier on yourself if you start with fewer options.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.