Thursday, January 06, 2005

Tyranny of choice and the long tail

Chris Anderson writes about the "tyranny of choice":
    Studies showed that people actually felt worse about their purchases when they had more to choose from (did I make the right decision?), and often even bought less because of it.
It's information overload. Lack of easy ways to differentiate and filter the options leads to paralysis.

Chris continues:
    What was missing ... [is] "data" about products, and "metadata" about information itself. For the physical goods, this can take the form of something as simple as Amazon's "rank by bestselling" lists to more complex background information such as reviews, price comparisons, version histories and manufacturing details.

    As Amazon's Jeff Bezos explains it, for a product that a potential purchaser has a great deal of interest in, no amount of information is too much: from reader and trade reviews to service records, the more they can learn about a product the more comfortable they are buying it. But for products that they just don't care much about, even something as simple as knowing what most other people bought can make the difference between being frozen by overwhelming choice and purchasing with confidence.
Jeff always has said that no amount of information is too much, but I think this misses the key point with tyranny of choice.

We don't just need more information. We need the right information.

Specifically, we need information that allows us to easily and quickly differentiate between the products. Flooding me with tons of information isn't useful if the information I need is lost in the clutter.

See also my earlier post, "Froogle adds product reviews", about how reviews transform Froogle from a mere price comparison engine to a service that gives "users the information they need to differentiate between products, helping them find the right product at the right price."

2 comments:

awu said...

Schwartz has also written a whole book on this subject, if you're curious. The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. (I recommend it.)

I've also thought about this too, wrt to Jeff and Amazon's philosophy of giving as much information as possible.

I think it's key not to generalize the specific results found in psychological studies too much. They showed that in certain cases, such as picking between a smaller number of chocolates or a whole box of candy, that more choices does not always lead to a more satisfied consumer.

I think in Amazon's case, several factors make this small result not matter that much in the end. First, customer reviews, in anecdotal and arithmetic aggregative forms, serve to break ties between products.

In other words, much of Amazon's data are distinguishing data that I would argue helps customers make choices without being overwhelmed.

Add to that features like listmania, recommender systems, and so on, and I'm not sure that information overload is something that Amazon customers really deal with.

(Then again, I'm not a CS rep, so maybe I'm not that in touch with the average customer :)

Mezmer said...

May I add this additional comment from a neurological perspective arguing that at root the Schwartz is makes the right observations, but the wrong conclusions.

The Tyranny of Choice and the One Track Mind

Epidemiology is to biology what social epidemiology (or social psychology) is to neuroscience. But each discipline requires the other to provide true explanations for behavior. Thus, to know how a disease spreads and impacts a population, it’s critically important to inform that knowledge with a rudimentary or metaphorical understanding of how diseases work. For example, in the 19th century, the epidemiology of malaria was well known, but because the spread of the disease was attributed to ‘bad air’ rather than mosquito, epidemiological knowledge could only suggest a partial remedy, if at all. For social psychology however this connection is missing, as the behavior of people in social settings is generally not informed by neuroscience, but rather by the folk psychology of every day motives or desire. This disconnect means that social observations can result in prescriptions that are only partially effective because they miss the real reasons for behavior.

How social epidemiology goes astray is illustrated by Barry Schwartz’s recent and quite important book ‘The Tyranny of Choice’. Schwartz noted from an abundance of sociological evidence that the increase in choices marked by the post industrial world is directly correlated with a rise in unhappiness. An abundance of choices means that we are more likely to suffer an opportunity loss for alternatives foregone, and that our adaptation to choices we make lead to the uncomfortable perception that the grass is always greener next door. So what is Schwartz’s prescription? It is to simply limit choice. The problem with this remedy is that neurologically, people (and indeed most living things) are neurologically wired to be aroused or find pleasure in the apprehension of choice, or in other words, looking forward to things. The apprehension of future choices, or ‘wanting’, is core to modern neuroscientific explanations of motivation, thus rendering Schwartz’s contrarian argument as neurologically unrealistic. Rather, it is in the execution and not in the apprehension of choice that unhappiness looms, and it may be argued that it is not choices per se that make us miserable, but the present ability to make choices at any time. For example, in 1955 we could check our mail, our stocks, see our favorite TV show, or even chat on the phone only at specified times and places. Nowadays, we can do all of these things at any place and any time. The result is a world that not only multiplies hopes (or choices), but multiplies distractions. In the past, distractions were limited, now they are everywhere, and the modern problem becomes not what to choose, but when to choose. So not limiting but delaying choice is perhaps a better remedy for the tyranny of choice. But this simple and obvious solution eludes Schwartz because he fails to recognize that the apprehension of choices is not just a rational but an affective thing, and that the prospect of infinite choice (or freedom) is as innate and important to us as taking a breathe.

(For more on the neurology of choice, I recommend the website of the neuroscientist Kent Berridge, who has included and admirable set of articles on the neuroscience of incentive motivation, or how we make choices.)