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What if that* Jam study has nothing to do with the paradox of choice, afterall?

image philandpam (flickr)

*In 1995, Professor Iyengar and her research assistants designed a real-world experiment that set out to test the paradox of choice.

They assembled samples of Wilkin & Sons jams in a California gourmet market, with 2 variables: A selection of 24 jams vs a group of six jams.

The results.

a. On average, customers tasted two jams, regardless of the size of the assortment, and each one received a coupon good for $1 off one Wilkin & Sons jam.

b. 60% of customers were drawn to the large assortment vs 40% for the small one.

c. 30% of the people who had sampled from the small assortment bought jam. Only 3% of those confronted with the two dozen jams purchased a jar.

Their conclusion.

“… people might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating.”

It’s a story that’s spread to bolster arguments about product development, web design and pricing strategies.

But what if there’s another reason why people didn’t buy the Jam?

Could it be down to scarcity instead?

24 kinds of jam says

“Look at all our Jam. There’s loads of jam today, there’ll be loads of jam tomorrow. Take your time”.

6 jams says

“Hurry up and get some yummy jam before the zombies get you”.

Could it be down to exclusivity and positioning?

24 types of jam says

“There’s nothing special about jam. You can make jam out of anything. Look, we even did it with fucking quince”.

6 jams says

“This stuff is rare and precious. Get it now, or die having never known the sugary pleasure of mushed apricots”.

Of course, we know intuitively that choosing stuff is a PITA.

A few years ago our stem cell startup handled reams of confidential paperwork and I volunteered to buy a shredder.

Big mistake because I had no idea I was embarking on a bemusing conquest of infinite decisions. Did I need autoloading? How fast did it need to be? Was it for a small office or a large office? Did I need to shred credit cards too? What about staples and paperclips? A3 or A4? Confetti cut or ribbon?

Fact is, I don’t care. I just want it to do its thing. Really well. And I want it to not look shit.

Problem is, I do care. Even a friggin office shredder made me question my decision. Was I missing out on the autoloading thing? Did I pick the right one? Did I screw up? Am I a good human being?

Anecdotally, I have no doubt that the paradox of choice is real. It’s just that the jam study doesn’t prove it. The experimental setup didn’t control for other factors that might inadvertently influence the situation and skew the data. Like scarcity and exclusivity.

And we fall for this all the time. Even scientists.

Which means that something presented as science might be purely anecdotal.

Thing is, science isn’t magic. It’s just a process that helps curious people understand the world better. Scientists are professional skeptics and they design artificial scenarios to test their ideas and figure stuff out. But scientists aren’t infallible. Sometimes they miss things and it takes a few iterations to arrive at a valid conclusion.

More often, journalists and bloggers misinterpret data or distil findings into anecdotes that are easier to understand. But anecdotes lack the nuanced qualification and conditionals that are so important to the humble scientist.

The actual papers conclusions states (emphasis mine)

These findings are striking. Certainly, they appear to challenge a fundamental assumption held by psychologists and economists alike — that having more, rather than fewer, choices is necessarily more desirable and intrinsically motivating.

The authors go on to highlight some limitations of the study that most people miss when reciting from blogs and popular press without reverting to the original source.

Sometimes there’s conflicting evidence that refutes the original study and sometimes there’s no explanation for that.

It’s up to you to question everything.

Including this article.

If this helped you look at things differently, please share it.

And if you’d like more articles like this, subscribe to Hackerpreneur Magazine.




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Marc Eglon

Marc Eglon

Editor of Hackerpreneur magazine. http://hck.co/mag

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