Edmund Andrews has written a good article about the research of Stanford Professor Itamar Simonson and colleagues. Andrews discusses how Simonson's latest work challenges the commonly held view about "choice overload" that has become popular in recent years. Andrews writes:
For well over a decade, researchers in consumer behavior have debated whether the ever-expanding array of goods creates “choice overload” that can actually discourage people from buying. Barry Schwartz, a psychologist, wrote a famous 2004 book on what he called the “paradox of choice.” But many other scholars — not to mention marketing executives — have been doubtful. Customers may groan at the bewildering choices they face when ordering something as simple as coffee, but they still seem to want them. And companies keep offering them. In fact, a 2010 survey of more than 50 separate experiments on choice overload found that the results of bigger selections were essentially a wash. Big assortments discouraged consumers in some studies but encouraged them in others. On average across the studies, the impact of a big selection was about zero.
What has Simonson found in his research? He conducted a series of experiments, and he has found that the way choices are presented matters. In the experiments, he examined the situation in which a person begins by considering whether to make a purchase at all, and then tries to determine which particular item to buy. In contrast, he looked at the situation in which someone tries to select among a broad assortment and then determines whether to buy. Simonson found that "choice overload" does not exist if someone begins by thinking about whether to buy at all. In that case, having lots of choices appears to be a very good thing, and people are more likely to buy if presented with many choices. Andrews writes, "If, however, a person begins by picking a favorite from an assortment of options, and only then deciding whether to buy, a large selection makes the task harder and lowers the likelihood of buying."