Neckties, Self, and the Paradox of Choice

July 30, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

I was walking through Macy’s the other day – the original store, the one that occupies an entire city block at Herald Square.  On the ground floor of the men’s store (the half of the building on the Seventh Avenue side) is the departmentI called “men’s furnishings.” It was there, in men’s furnishings, that I thought of Barry Schwartz.

Schwartz is the social psychologist who in 2004 published The Paradox of Choice — Why More Is Less.

The basic idea is that while choice is good, if we have too many items to choose from, we freeze. We can’t decide. And when we finally do make a choice, we’re less likely to be satisfied with it.

It all began with jam. In 2000, psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper published a remarkable study. On one day, shoppers at an upscale food market saw a display table with 24 varieties of gourmet jam. Those who sampled the spreads received a coupon for $1 off any jam. On another day, shoppers saw a similar table, except that only six varieties of the jam were on display. The large display attracted more interest than the small one. But when the time came to purchase, people who saw the large display were one-tenth as likely to buy as people who saw the small display. [Barry Schwartz, “More Isn’t Always Better,” Harvard Business Review, June 2006]

It sounds reasonable. But the last time I was in a supermarket, they certainly seemed to have a lot of different jams. But what do I know? Maybe the displays are only half the size of what they were pre-Schwartz.

Back to Macy’s. What they have mostly in men’s furnishings is neckties. Table after table, each featuring a different designer or label, and each designer offering different patterns and different colors. I felt as though I were swimming in an ocean of neckties. There had to be well over a thousand different ties to choose from.

(Click to enlarge. A panoramic view of the whole floor would have shown still more tables on the left and right of this.)

Wine stores, same thing. Bottle of red, bottle of white? More like hundreds, thousands, of each. Narrow it down. Say you want a cabarnet sauvignon. You’ve still got at least a hundred to choose from.

Macy’s and my wine store have been in business for a long time. Surely they must know what they’re doing in giving the customer so many options. Call it the paradox of the paradox of choice. Or as Koen Smets (here ) says, “It’s complicated.” There are choices, and then there are choices.

People prefer fewer choices for utilitarian purchases and more choices for hedonic purchases. When we buy something only for its functional utility, we don’t want to spend much time comparing various options — whatever does the job is good enough. When we are looking for something that will give us pleasure, in contrast, our preferences are more specific and pronounced, and this makes us more demanding.

Pleasure as opposed to functional utility may be part of what makes us want more choices. But that can’t be all there is to it. Is my wine at dinner more pleasurable than my marmalade at breakfast? How much choice we want and how much time and effort we will devote to making that choice also depend on how meaningful the item is to us, how strongly it’s connected to our sense of who we are. That connection is also what makes the object pleasurable. If I think of a car as just transportation, a BMW isn’t going to give me more pleasure than does my ‘98 Honda.

I was having lunch once in Manhattan with a friend who had a business meeting that afternoon. As we were leaving the restaurant, I noticed that some of the lunch had wound up on his necktie. We weren’t far from Bloomingdale’s, whose necktie department (also on the ground floor) looks much like Macy’s only with higher prices. But on the streetcorner across from the restaurant, stood a guy selling ties from a small rack — a selection of at most a dozen. Most of them looked like all the other ties my friend owned, so he grabbed one, paid the $5, tossed his stained tie in a trash can, and put on the new one. Necktie connoisseurship was not a big component in his sense of self.

For choosing an item closely entwined with the self, more choice may mean more pleasure. What if one of the supermarket shoppers in the Iyengar*-Lepper study was really into jam. She looks at those 24 jars (What, only 24?) and imagines what each will taste like, how it will compare to others she’s had. She reads the ingredients on each label.  (Fifteen grams of sugar? Seems a bit much.). Finally, she narrows the choice and takes the quince-blueberry with a hint of thyme. On the other hand, the shoppers who just want something to smear on the kids’ PBJ sandwiches will grab the first one that looks like it’ll work. All those others just make things confusing.

* Ms Iyengar made an appearance in this blog some years ago (here), also in connection with the idea of choice. The post was called “Iyengar Management.” I couldn’t resist. And it does have anger in it.

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