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How many choices are too many?

If you want to influence the decisions of clients or colleagues, the number of choices you offer them is crucial. Too many and you risk overloading the cognitive process. Not enough and people don’t feel like they have a choice.

In a series of studies recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research, persuasion researchers sought an answer to the following question: when people have to make a choice, what is the optimum number of options to offer them? The answer, it seems, depends on whether the decision concerns something pleasurable and luxurious or something more practical.

the more options someone has to choose from, the harder that choice becomes. And when choice becomes hard, people will often be more persuaded by the option that is easiest for them to justify in their own mind. In many cases, the easiest choice to justify is the one that favours practicality over pleasure and function over form.

Studies like these don’t just provide insights into how we are persuaded as consumers, but also how we can persuade others. If we want to influence a new client to do business with us or a work colleague to see our way of thinking, it is going to be important to consider which category the options we offer fall into. If we want to persuade people to pick an option that is more pleasurable, then we should limit the choices we offer. However, if we want to persuade them to make a more practical choice, providing a larger number of choices appears to be a more effective approach.

Trader Joe’s intentionally limits selection because they know when we’re under pressure we pick the brand which causes the least amount of cognitive work (like the one at eye level, or the brand we’re most familiar with).

You do want to persuade better, don’t you? Then read Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions.

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