Maximizer or Satisficer — which one are you? On technology and choice

This is part 1 of 3 on this topic, where we’re exploring the relationship between technology and psychology as they relate to our everyday lives. While technology is evolving at a rate that is hard for academic study to keep up with, we can still relate some basic psychological principles to our technological habits. Ideally, by understanding these principles we can gain back a little control of our lives. Today, we’re looking at the abundance of choice that comes with modern technology.

When it comes to decision-making, we all think we want more choices. I mean, doesn’t it intuitively make sense that more choices should eventually make us happier? Technology is no exception to this line of thinking. We often see technology ads that try to convince us that by having everything we can think of at our fingertips, we’ll be happier because all of our trouble will disappear. It’s common sense, right?

In reality, as people are starting to figure out, the amount of apps you have still does not determine how happy you are. We all know the feeling: you download a great new productivity app that’ll make every single part of your life easier, you use it once, and then you get distracted by an even newer, even better app that just came out (which won’t solve all of your problems either.) Or maybe, like me, you don’t even get that far because you spend all your time scrolling through the millions of apps you could download and never get to actually downloading or using any of them. Considering that there are a thousand useful apps out there for any possible situation, why don’t we ever feel satisfied? Doesn’t an increase in choice mean we’re likelier to find what we want?

Two psychologists had that same question about 15 years ago, so they set out to find the answer using different flavors of jam. You should really check out their full write-up here because it’s pretty interesting, but I’ll give you a brief rundown. The researchers set up a jam-selling booth at a grocery store on two different Saturdays. One week they had a display of 6 jams (less choice), and the other week they had a display of 24 jams (more choice.) Since they expected that people would be happier with more choice, the results somewhat surprised them.

The researchers were looking at two dependent variables: how many people would stop at the stand and how many people actually bought jam from the stand. When it came to how many people stopped at the stand (considered as a measure of x initial attractiveness), the display of 24 flavors did a bit better (60%) than the 6 flavor display (40%.) This is pretty unsurprising, as one would expect more jam choices to attract more customers. When it came to how many people actually ended up spending money, however, the 6 flavor display won easily, getting 30% of people to buy jam compared to the 3% who bought jam at the 24 flavor display. This essentially indicates that more choices lead to higher initial attractiveness, but it’s easier to actually decide on getting something when you’re presented with fewer choices.

To bring it back to app usage and why some of us waste so much time looking at other apps we could download, think of it this way: I’m very attracted by the millions of app choices at my fingertips, so I keep going back to the store to look around. Once I get there, though, there are too many apps to make a decision so I end up not getting anything. As weird as it sounds, this research may indicate that if there were fewer apps to pick from, I’d actually be more likely to find something that would make me happy and that I would want to download. That should give you something to think about next time you see an ad boasting about a company’s near-unlimited choices.

So how do we use these findings to spend less time drowning in a sea of endless choice? Well, for starters, don’t go searching for apps with a completely open mind. If you do, the app you really want will just end up buried with the countless others you don’t want. Instead of just looking for a productivity app, get more specific. Think about what you really need. For example, you might actually be looking for an app that can scan PDFs and sync them to your desktop. Now instead of looking through millions of apps, you’re only choosing from the ones that might actually help you because you’re ignoring the noise. You can apply this same thinking beyond apps, to technology and even other parts of your life. Consider specifically what could help make your life easier before being inundated by impersonal pitches that claim they can help. That way, you can simulate having less choices and might have a better chance of coming away satisfied.

How do you deal with the nearly infinite amount of choices in your life? Let us know in the comments below.

Originally published at on August 23, 2015.