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The Problem of Choice: How 6 Countries Perceive Levels of Choice

Both choice deprivation and choice overload can reduce satisfaction. However, choice deprivation is found in more countries globally, affecting satisfaction more severely. Marketers should focus on increasing their range of offerings, customise the number of available options to individual shoppers, and consider cultural context before applying results of studies to their markets. Policymakers should focus more on alleviating deprivation of those living in scarcity.



Consumers today have more choices than ever before. Whether for something as basic as

biscuits or as critical as jobs, there is a multitude of options. However, more options do not necessarily mean enough options. Nor does it automatically imply satisfaction with the options. Research has long held that the relationship between choice and option is an inverted “U” shaped one. That is, both too many and too few options cause dissatisfaction. A study across six countries looks into this relationship to determine: What are the patterns of choice deprivation or overload in these countries, and how do they relate to satisfaction?


Its design included some interesting features to make the study more universally relevant. The countries chosen for the study contain almost half of the world’s population and belong

to both individualistic cultures (the United States) and collectivistic ones (Brazil, Japan, Russia, India, and China). The study also focused on individual choice set preferences rather than a fixed “average” number. That is, it asked individuals to answer based on their personal ideas of actual and ideal numbers of options. Finally, the study considered six domains spanning various aspects of everyday life: soft drinks, automobiles, houses, physicians, education opportunities, and jobs.



The study found that choice deprivation might be more common than choice overload or

choice sufficiency globally. Even across countries, choice deprivation was the most prevalent option, and only in the United States, choice sufficiency was the most common experience. Results also differed across domains, with the more substantial ones of jobs, education, and physicians showing mostly choice deprivation. In the other three domains, choice satisfaction was the primary experience.


Retailers sometimes create a false sense of scarcity to drive sales. To find out why that can be a double-edged sword, click here.


The study also found that the effect of choice deprivation on satisfaction is both negative and universal. Most people in most places were unhappy when the available choices were

fewer than their ideal. Choice overload, on the other hand, has a more complex impact on people across different countries. In Japan, choice overload did not reduce satisfaction and, in fact, led to higher satisfaction than the ideal level of choice. In China, there was no connection between choice overload and satisfaction for the non-commercial domains of physicians, jobs, and education. In India, a similar trend was seen for jobs. In all other cases, choice overload led to decreased satisfaction. In terms of intensity, too, choice deprivation had a greater impact on satisfaction than choice overload.


One of the problems with choice overload is that it can create confusion and increase cognitive effort needed to make the choice. Read on to find out how this effect is seen in case of free gifts.



The study has important insights for marketers. Given the relatively higher impact of choice deprivation, they should attempt to provide more options to shoppers so that they have

enough options. This is especially true for countries where choice deprivation is the primary trend. The study also found that adding or reducing a few more options did not affect satisfaction too much. So, marketers looking to expand their product lines to include a wider range of customer preferences can do so. Even if the market faces choice overload, they won’t be very adversely affected and might, in fact, end up satisfying some potential buyers.


Further, since the individual levels of ideal numbers of options vary, marketers can customise

their offerings to individual preferences. Online shopping platforms, for instance, can show only the number of options a buyer chooses to see. Finally, a culture-specific insight for marketers is that instead of the blanket application of the findings of studies conducted in other countries, they should consider how well the results might suit their own country or culture.


The study also has relevant implications for policymakers as well. They need to focus on

alleviating deprivation faced by the people who live in scarcity instead of focusing on addressing the overload faced by those who live in abundance. This becomes even more critical in light of the fact that in India, the well-to-do form a small minority (around 10 million who are often called the California users). Indian policy makers should also encourage more job creation since choice overload does not impact people’s satisfaction with the number of choices available.

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