The Jam Experiment: On Choice

by Elizabeth King on July 15, 2010

I talk a lot about The Jam Experiment.

Now, stop me if you’ve heard this one, because this is not BREAKING NEWS. In fact, the results of this particular study were released ten years ago by some students at my neighborhood academic institution, Columbia University.

The Jam Experiment (officially titled “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?”) explores choice: specifically, what’s available to us, our experience of choice when we sense we are limited or have a surfeit of options, and how we feel about what we chose after the fact. The options available to each of us on a daily basis ten years ago pale in comparison to those options each of us encounters today. Now more than ever, it’s relevant.

In short, The Jam Experiment may lend insight into why we as a culture are so perennially dissatisfied, why we’re addicted to The Next Big Thing, and why even the most gifted among us may suffer in a malaise of regret or inertia. We’ll get into each of those topics on Stay Out Of School down the line, but for now, we need to know the nuts and bolts of The Jam Experiment.

Too Many Options Make You Less Likely to Actually Choose Something

Here’s the experiment in a nutshell (and please, feel free to read the whole thing via the above link if you’re a budding econometric researcher and want to look for causality and correlative errors): essentially, in the first of three experiments shoppers were presented with jam at the grocery store. Some shoppers saw a display that included 6 different flavors; others encountered a display that offered 30. There was little difference in the taste testing behaviors of the shoppers at either table. However, thirty percent of those individuals who visited the table that offered only six choices actually purchased jam, while a mere three percent made purchases after visiting the table that offered 24 options.

According to the researchers, “Even though consumers presumably shop at this particular store in part because of the large number of selections available, having “too much” choice seems nonetheless to have hampered their later motivation to buy.”

We may want to read that as “having ‘too much’ choice…hampered their later motivation to commit.”

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When You Have Fewer Choices, You’ll Go After What You Choose with Gusto

A second stage of the experiment offered students the opportunity to write an extra credit paper for a class. No information on the way the essay would be graded was offered; instead, the assignment was essentially “choose from this list of topics and write two pages about it.” Again, some students were given six topic options; others were given a list of thirty from which to choose.

This time, not only did more students complete the assignment who were given six options, but they also wrote papers of higher quality. Across the board, those students who had fewer options participated in droves and elected to perform at a higher level.

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Even Though You Love Your Options, They Ultimately Make You Second Guess Your Choice

The third experiment offered students choices of chocolate. This one gets a little more complicated, but ultimately strives to measure satisfaction with a choice when one is choosing between a relatively limited or large number of options. Students were given choices of Godiva chocolates (you know, choosing between Raspberry Truffle and 70% Cocoa, etc.)— again, there were six choices for those in the limited group and thirty choices for those in the extensive-choice group. At this point I’m sure it comes as no surprise that, while they reported a higher level of satisfaction with having all those choices than did the limited selection group, “participants [in the extended-options group] proved more dissatisfied and regretful of the choices they made…”

Let’s repeat that: everyone was really happy to have more options, they sensed that it was better, and they reported enjoying the process of making the decision, albeit more difficult than it would have been if they’d been limited. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, the extensive-choice participants reported higher levels of dissatisfaction and regret than those who had not had many options at all.

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In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard Professor of Psychology Daniel Gilbert famously admonishes his readers to avoid using variety as the “spice of life,” suitable for shaking up every circumstance. Instead, he suggests that if you’re visiting your favorite restaurant only once a week or so, go ahead and get your favorite dish each time—the time between visits really does allow for consistent, happy consumption of your Penne alla Vodka.

Perhaps whomever suggested that “variety is the spice of life” meant that “wrestling through options” is the spice of life (as the Jam Experiment proves we to love to feel like we have extensive choices), but ultimately, it’s consistency, limitation, and giving careful consideration only to those choices that truly matter to us that ultimately motivates us to embrace our choices.

We’ll delve into moments of relevancy of The Jam Experiment down the line, but for now I think making sure we’re all on the same page is imperative.

Are you a choice junky?

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Clay July 15, 2010 at 9:33 am

This is great, Elizabeth. I agree completely.

As a marketer, the one thing I’ll add is that when faced with a multitude of choices, as all consumers now are, they often default to the lowest price option.

If told by their significant other to pickup coffee, a consumer now faces an entire aisle of coffee beans in all sorts of colors, roasts, flavors, degrees of organic-ness, etc. If no marketer has effectively sold the consumer on their brand, they are likely to mentally shrug and buy the cheapest option.

So product marketers have two options. 1) if you don’t want to compete with Wal-Mart (which is wise) is to create a remarkable product that the customer seeks out (book: Purple Cow) or 2) create a whole new category of product or service (book: Blue Ocean Strategy – example: Cirque de Soleil)

Great post. Keep ‘em coming.

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Tak July 15, 2010 at 9:55 am

Clay, maybe I’m entirely too much of a coffee snob, or a snob in general to accept your premise. If your assertion is correct, you would have to say that marketing is the SOLE criteria that anybody would buy anything other than the cheapest option. Frankly, that’s giving far too much power to the marketers for my taste.

Personally, I love the choices that I’m given as a consumer. I’m happy about the fact that I can choose between more options than Chock Full o Nuts and Folgiers, as was the case when I was a kid. Granted, i may stand completely dazed in the cereal isle from time to time, but by the time I’ve made a choice, I’m happy with it.

Also, I think people have adapted to greater choice to a large extent. It’s relatively easy to eliminate choices by bulk… in the cereal isle example, it’s pretty easy to say “Nothing too sugary, nothing that looks like rabbit food, something that has a reasonable amount of fiber, etc…” by the time you’ve chosen two initial criteria, you’re down to maybe 3 choices anyway. Nobody buys grape nuts and pines for trix when they get home.

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admin July 15, 2010 at 10:00 am

Tak– you make an interesting point about “enjoying choices.” They actually addressed the process of elimination in which we engage when we’re having to look at too many options. Obviously these experiments were intentionally in a vacuum: we’re choosing between flavors of one type of same-priced chocolate. They did everything possible to eliminate all the differences (and pre-existing tastes) that might govern these decisions. Ultimately, when you’re mass-eliminating like that, you’re really knocking out volume so you can get back to making a more enjoyable choice, the choice between a few options.

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Air July 15, 2010 at 11:45 am

Fascinating. It’s worth linking to TED, where Gilbert runs through his ideas in a few minutes:
http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy.html

> choice junky
The most common effect I observe in daily life is choice paralysis. The anxiety of making a less-than-optimal decision can lead to no decision at all, which is ironically the worst possible outcome in time-critical situations.

There’s another TED talk with a similar perspective:
http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice.html

Interesting blog, I’m subscribing : )

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Topher July 15, 2010 at 3:31 pm

I agree w/ Tak’s points about Clay possibly giving the marketeer too much power, but There is merit to Clays train of thought. Maybe there’s another option that he didn’t suggest that is the idea not of necessarily creating a remarkable product or different service but having a familiarity for the consumer with that product, through extensive ads, time in the market, or promise of more. I believe this might be where the debate and dissatisfaction cone into play, say going from something that is familiar and ingrained like Welch’s Grape Jelly and knowing that is maybe a quality basic product to being given organic, different flavored, well packaged choices. The delay lies in whether to accept the promise or stay with the familiar, whether that is working for you or not because it is familiar even though the new options may improve the experience. Not fulfilling this promise if you do take the risk leads to the dissatisfaction and tendency to pause when given the greater options again. Just a thought. Thanks Elizabeth for this great post and look forward to seeing more discussion.

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Jenn July 16, 2010 at 11:07 am

Thought provoking as always, Elizabeth. Looking forward to the next installment so I can see where you’re headed with this line of thought!

A couple of things come to mind. Since we’re talking education (and we’re both in the test prep field), I couldn’t help thinking about how this relates to teens. I have a background in psychology (specifically neuropsychology), and know a bit about the workings of the brain. The part of the brain responsible for decision making, as well as attention, judgment and impulse control, is the pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex is essentially the part of the brain that separates us from the chimps. It’s also the last part of the brain to fully develop, which means that it’s still not “grown up” in teens. I’m not telling anyone anything surprising if I say that teens are impulsive and inattentive. They’re also notoriously bad decision makers and exhibit poor judgment. So teens are essentially walking around with a mild case of Alzheimer’s Disease (minus the memory problems!).

Unfortunately, teens are expected to make major life decisions when they’re not necessarily ready for them. At a time when they may be struggling with a multiple choice test (too many options right?), they’re expected to make good decisions in choosing a college, taking on debt, opting on a career, etc. Those things give you literally thousands of choices. Thirty options would be a luxury, six is impossible! Is it any wonder that kids frequently make the easy choice? Going to the same school as all of your high school buddies is the fast way to narrow down the options. Is the adolescent herd mentality another way to limit choices? More food for thought…

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Lou Imbriano July 16, 2010 at 1:17 pm

Elizabeth,

LL Bean used to print and ship two catalogs a year and business was coming in nicely. They came up with the concept that if they went to six times a year they would increase business. As you would now know from the work you did on this post, business for LL Bean actually decreased. It appears that because the two books were so well done, people would leave them on their coffee table all year long as a constant reminder, buying occasionally throughout the year. When the frequency of catalogs increased the need to keep the LL Bean book was eliminated.

“More” in today’s culture actually equals spam. So people pay less attention and don’t engage. Simple and strategic is definitely the approach that should be taken.

I always enjoy your wit and brilliance – even when you are making fun of me… Keep dazzling ;)

My best,
Lou

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Jason of the Empire July 25, 2010 at 10:58 am

When I went back to school (gulp!) I actually had Sheila Iyengar as a prof. — she was always trying to get people to sign up for a University-sponsored speed-dating night (which actually tied into her research on choice theory), but I digress.

I’d also like to contest Clay’s statement, that when faced with choices people regress toward choosing the lease-expensive option. If anything, my understanding is that people regress toward a mid-priced option, neither wanting to feel/appear cheap nor extravagant. Marketers routinely take advantage of this behavior, by creating super-luxury/high-priced versions of their basic products in order to (re)set the high-point point in people’s calculations, and drive them toward the new middle option, which had previously been the high-priced option that they really wanted to sell all along. This game is played on products from paper towels and lipstick to TV’s and automobiles. And here you thought you were a rational decision maker!

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Mike Hall June 7, 2012 at 8:17 pm

Interesting stuff. Actually, where this is really interesting isn’t in mass marketed consumer products where you can pick up a can of coffee beans for example. The issues of choice really come into play when everything is alien to the customer. For example, in pension planning, giving the customer too many investment choices with confusing names tends to drive people to inertia. This has been shown time and time again, so that for every 20 investment funds added to the customer’s choices, 2% will choose to do nothing because they simply don’t know what action to take. 200 investment choices are common in the UK, meaning that if the research is accurate, 20% of customers with a choice to invest money offered to them by their employer actually end up not doing so as they are suffering from analysis paralysis.

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