Special Session Summary You (Still) Can’T Always Get What You Wantbwhy Greater Choice Is Demotivating


Kristin Diehl (2005) ,"Special Session Summary You (Still) Can’T Always Get What You Wantbwhy Greater Choice Is Demotivating", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 32, eds. Geeta Menon and Akshay R. Rao, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 283-286.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 32, 2005     Pages 283-286



Kristin Diehl, University of South Carolina


This session featured three papers that were part of the MSI-JCP Research Competition on "Product Assortment and Variety-Seeking in Consumer Choice". The paper by White and Schlosser was the winner of that competition, while the other two papers received honorable mentions. As a whole this session offered a targeted look at assortments size issues, approaching the topic from a diverse set of perspectives.

Recently, there has been a lot of renewed interest in the area of assortment size and selection (e.g. Iyengar and Lepper 2000; Chernev 2003; Sood, Rottenstreich and Brenner 2004). Researchers have challenged the idea that greater choice always is a desirable state, focusing on choice overload as a major driver of negative consequences of larger assortments. The three papers presented in this session offer additional and novel mechanisms that can explain why and under what conditions more choice may not be desirable. Specifically, the three papers find:

How larger assortments affect purchase intentions for unfamiliar products depends on whether consumers focus on the benefits or risks of adopting new products as well as on whether search or experience attributes are emphasized (White and Schlosser).

Larger assortments reduce willingness to pay for and satisfaction with a product due to heightened expectations causing negative disconfirmation (Diehl and Poynor).

Objective decision quality is diminished when choosing from larger selections while decision makers expect higher financial performance from portfolios generated from a larger set (Morrin, Broniarczyk, Inman, and Broussard).

Rebecca Ratner, as the discussant, integrated the diverse research presented in this session as addressing the questions of "Why are larger choice sets demotivating?", "For whom are larger choice sets demotivating?", and "What situational factors attenuate the aversiveness of large choice sets?". She also proposed additional explanations and manipulations to be included in future research. Subsequently, the audience engaged in a lively discussion of challenges researchers face when studying assortment size issues.



Tiffany B. White, University of Illinois

Ann E. Schlosser, University of Washington

Fueled by advances in technology and distribution, companies can more easily expand existing product lines than ever before. In addition to broadening product lines in order to satisfy and retain current customers, marketers may also do so to increase the likelihood that current non-users will find an enticing option among their relatively large product assortments. Though such a strategy has intuitive appeal, the traditional economic notion that larger product assortments lead to better choices and greater choice satisfaction has more recently been updated to incorporate the possibility that large assortments are not always superior to small assortments (Chernev 2003, Huffman and Kahn 1998, Iyengar and Lepper 2000, Lehmann 1998).

Prior research has focused largely upon product categories with which individuals are highly familiar (see Chernev 2003, and van Herpen and Pieters 2002 for exceptions). In this research, we focus on the extent to which assortment size may influence consumers’ intentions towards trying new productsBthose with which they have a low level of familiarity. While recent research suggests that the strategy of increasing product assortment size may be less effective for tempting novices (e.g., van Herpen and Pieters 2002), relatively little is known about factors that may moderate the extent to which this is true. The convergence of findings related to the negative aspects of negotiating larger assortments begs an investigation of factors that might offset these effects. For example, if apprehension over making the wrong choice underlies the negative impact of large assortments on choice, to what extent might encouraging consumers to consider the positive aspects of adopting new products mitigate these negative effects? Similarly, how might characteristics of product descriptions, specifically whether products in a given assortment are described using search versus experiential descriptions, influence the effect of assortment size on intentions?

We address these questions in this research and explore conditions under which having more options can positively influence purchase intentions. We propose that consumers’ intentions to try low familiarity product categories can be influenced by assortment size as well as the congruence between consumers’ beliefs about being innovative and the nature of product descriptions. Specifically, we show that consumers primed to think about the favorable aspects of adopting new products have higher intentions for large (versus small) product assortments, especially when the products in the assortment are described in a manner that supports an enjoyable, exploratory experience (i.e., when products are described in terms of their experiential qualities). However, when consumers are primed to think about the negative aspects of adopting new products, they appear to seek objective information to help them make a good decision. Accordingly, when the risks of adoption are made salient, individuals’ intentions will be higher when the assortment is large (versus small), but only when the products in the assortment are described in objective terms (i.e., when products are described in terms of their search qualities).

To test these hypotheses, we conducted a study in which 165 undergraduates participated. The experiment was a 2 (adoption: favorable versus unfavorable) x 2 (assortment: large vs. small) x 2 (attributes: search versus experiential) between-subjects design. The adoption manipulation involved a priming procedure similar to that used in prior research (Campbell and Kirmani 2000). Participants received two booklets for two purportedly separate studies. The first was the adoption manipulation masked as a reading comprehension task during which participants read two business articles. The article serving as the favorable/unfavorable adoption prime discussed the observed gains/risks of adopting e-logistics for the ocean container industry. Participants then completed six comprehension questions, were thanked for their participation, and then began the second study, in which they were instructed that they would be evaluating a new tea shop. Participants then received a menu with either 5 types of teas (small assortment) or 25 (large assortment) and were instructed to choose a tea from the menu. Each tea was described in terms of its ingredients (search attributes) or the experience of drinking the tea (experiential attributes). After reading the menu, participants recorded the tea that they would order and then completed a series of judgment measures on the pages that followed.

All manipulation checks were successful. Further, in line with our expectations, intentions were higher when the assortment size was large rather than small. This effect was qualified by adoption and attributes. That is, the large assortment led to higher purchase intentions only when the description of the products within the assortment were consistent with individuals’ primed views of adoptionCotherwise there was no appreciable advantage to having a large than small assortment. Specifically, among those primed to think of the favorable aspects of adoption, their intentions were higher when they received the large/experiential menu than the small/experiential menu, whereas their intentions did not differ between the large/search and small/search menu. For those primed to think about the risks of adoption, their intentions were higher when they received the large/search menu than the small/search menu, whereas their intentions did not differ across assortment when the products were described experientially.

These findings support our predictions that both salient beliefs about adoption and how the products within an assortment are described influence whether the large assortment is superior to the small assortment in affecting consumers’ intentions to try an unfamiliar product. Our research advances the existing literature in at least two ways. Consistent with prior research (Chernev 2003), we propose that the superiority of a large versus small product assortment is moderated by individual differences. We contribute to this prior research by proposing that the effect of product assortment on consumers’ intentions to try an unfamiliar product will depend upon their beliefs about adoptionCthat is, whether the benefits or risks of adoption are top-of-mind. Secondly, we propose that an additional critical variable to consider is how the products within the assortment are described. An interesting future research direction that we intend to pursue is how perceived risk, risk mitigation, frustration and enjoyment account for the effects discussed above.



Kristin Diehl, University of South Carolina

Cait Poynor, University of South Carolina

A long line of research in psychology has demonstrated the benefits of choice over no choice (e.g. Brehm 1966). In marketing, many studies have shown that consumers value greater selection (e.g. Kahn 1995; McAlister and Pessemier 1982) and that they react negatively to restrictions imposed on their selection (e.g. Clee and Wicklund 1980; Fitzsimons 2000).

Recently, however, researchers have demonstrated that consumers can experience too much choice. Consumers are less likely to actually purchase when faced with a larger as opposed to smaller selections (Iyengar and Lepper 2000; Iyengar and Jiang 2003) and are less satisfied with their choice when choosing from larger, more varied assortments (Wood, Swain and Wadden 2004). Finally Chernev (2003) shows a decrease in choice confidence, if preferences are not well articulated. This stream of research suggests that greater selection can be 'demotivating’ because exposure to too many options can create choice overload. More options may overwhelm decision makers, heighten decision difficulty, and increase choice deferral (Huffman and Kahn 1998, Gourville and Soman 2000).

We propose an additional mechanism that, alongside the effect of cognitive load, may explain lower purchase likelihood from larger assortments. This mechanism is based on the effect of assortment size on consumers’ expectations. Consumers’ expectations play a vital role in determining customer choice (e.g. Oliver 1987). We expect the size of the assortment to affect consumers’ predictions of how well they can match their preferences when choosing from a given assortment. Specifically, we predict larger assortments will raise expectations about the preference match that can be achieved. Higher expectations may give rise to negative disconfirmation when searching a particular assortment thus leading to fewer purchases.

We note two reasons why consumers may not be able to find their ideal option in larger as opposed to smaller sets. First, consumers may overestimate how much better the match will be. Even in very large assortments they may not be able to find their ideal option, either because the ideal product does not exist (i.e. the ideal is an 'absolute phantom option’, (Pratkanis and Farquhar 1992), or, because the consumer does not search enough to encounter the ideal option even if it exists (i.e. a conditional phantom).

Second, larger assortments may also lead to negative disconfirmation through range-frequency effects. In more densely-populated distributions, any deviation from the ideal will be perceived as larger, due to the intervening number of points between the chosen option and the ideal (Wedell 1996). Therefore, in large assortments, negative expectations-disconfirmation effects may be exacerbated by perceptions of a larger distance between the next-closest option and the ideal.

We predict that assortment size will have a significant impact on consumers’ expectations. As a result of these heightened expectations, we expect that consumers choosing from large sets are more likely to experience disconfirmed expectations, which will lead to lower levels of satisfaction and purchase intentions. In order to test these predictions, we have collected data from two studies. Note that in the first study, willingness-to-pay is used as the measure of purchase intention, whereas in the second study, a behavioral measure is employed to gauge choice satisfaction.

Study 1 followed a 2 (menu size, 10 or 30 items) by 2 (expectations measure, yes or no) between-subjects design. Participants were given the task of reviewing a local restaurant for a diet club, specifically, to assign a star to the dish that came closest to the goal of 10 carbohydrates or less. In this case, participants were looking for a phantom option, as no option perfectly matched the goal. Across the large and small menus the best and second best option as well as the worst option were identical; however, the larger menu contained a more densely-populated set, allowing us to test for range-frequency effects.

Our analysis is based on 92 of 106 participants from a large insurance company that assigned the star correctly. We control for gender, age, and prior experience with low-carb diets. As expected, larger menus significantly increased participants expectations of finding at least one menu item that fits the goal. Most importantly, participants choosing from the small set expressed higher overall levels of satisfaction with their choice. Also consistent with our predictions, participants in the small-set condition expressed a higher willingness-to-pay for the chosen option. Finally, participants who were not asked about their expectations perceived the difference between the ideal and chosen option as larger than participants choosing from the smaller set, as predicted by range-frequency theory.

Study 2 followed a 2 (assortment size) by 2 (preference elicitation: before or after) between-subjects design. Participants chose a pen from a small (5) or large (35) catalog and subsequently used this pen to answer an unrelated survey. We use number of words written on this unrelated task as a behavioral measure of satisfaction. All participants reported expectations prior to searching the catalog. Half of our participants indicated their preference along four pen attributes prior to search and choice; the rest answered these questions post-choice. This factor was included in the analysis but did not affect the results. Controlling for decision difficulty and variety-seeking tendencies, we found that catalog size did indeed significantly impact expectations of finding an ideal or just a good pen in this catalog. Most interestingly, participants who chose a pen from the smaller assortment actually used the pen more (i.e. wrote significantly more words) than did participants who chose a pen from the large assortment, supporting our hypothesis.

These two studies affirm that the size of an assortment increases expectations and that larger-assortment choices yielded lower satisfaction and willingness to pay. We also find some evidence that the assortment-size expectation mechanism exists over and above the effect of decision difficulty and complexity proposed by prior research. As such, this research contributes an additional mechanism to the current discussion regarding assortment size and choice overload, suggesting that increasing consumers’ expectations of what should be available and therefore what will be considered acceptable products can decrease purchase likelihood.



Maureen Morrin, Rutgers University B Camden

Jeff Inman, University of Pittsburgh

Susan Broniarczyk, University of Texas at Austin

John Broussard, Rutgers University B Camden

In recent years, employers have been increasing the number of mutual fund options they offer in their defined contribution retirement plans, such as 401k’s. The Vanguard Center for Retirement Research notes the average number of funds offered in their plans has risen from twelve to fifteen in just four years. The goal of this research is to investigate whether larger fund assortments have negative consequences for consumers, and whether there are ways to mitigate such effects, such as by structuring plans with decision flexibility or offering allocation default options. We also explore whether an individual’s decision-making style affects the extent of negative consequences resulting from larger fund assortments.

Offering more choice options can cause feelings of stress, uncertainty, anxiety, and regret, can add to the burden of gathering information, create feelings of missed opportunities, and result in self-blame when decision outcomes do not meet expectations (Schwartz 2004). Recent research by Iyengar and Lepper (2000) found that larger assortments also tend to result in decision deferral. Iyengar and her colleagues have recently begun to investigate the impact of assortment size on consumers’ participation in retirement plans (Huberman, Iyengar and Jiang, 2003). These researchers examined data from Vanguard on participation in 401k plans as a function of the number of funds offered. They found that every ten funds added to an assortment led to a 1.5% to 2.0% drop in participation. For example, when just two funds were offered, 75% of employees participated, but when 59 funds were offered, just 60% of employees participated.

The current project seeks to extend this line of research, but our primary interest is not in the effects of fund assortment on employee participation rates (i.e., the decision deferral issue). Instead, we are interested in the impact of fund assortment on decision quality, actual portfolio diversification, perceived diversification, performance expectations, and choice satisfaction levels.

In Study 1 we look at whether providing consumers with greater decision flexibility might mitigate the negative fund assortment effects. That is, we investigate some potential solutions to the fund proliferation problem. Prior research on decision reversibility suggests that providing consumers with the ability to later change (Gilbert and Ebert 2002) or un-do their decisions (Tsiros and Mittal 2000) may alter their choice behavior and the level of satisfaction with their choices. We examine these potential moderating effects by manipulating whether or not the 401k participants can later change or opt out of their initial investment decisions.

The findings from Study 1 (n=188, 59% male, age range: 18 to 70+) indicate that investors like 401k plans more when they are offered a larger fund assortment. However, their decision quality (as measured by Sharpe ratios=return/volatility) falls when a larger assortment of funds is provided, unless a form of decision flexibility is also provided. We also found that investors making choices from the larger assortment believed they had constructed more diversified portfolios, when in fact they had constructed less diversified portfolios. Investors choosing from the larger assortment also were more likely to believe their portfolio would outperform the market, suggesting larger assortments may create unrealistic performance expectations.

In Study 2 we investigate the impact of default options on investor behavior. Prior research suggests there is less regret associated with the choice of default options (e.g., Simonson 1992). Thus, offering an allocation default option that removes the responsibility from the decision maker of having to decide how to allocate his investment across a number of mutual funds may reduce the mental cost involved with larger assortments, and possibly mitigate other negative consequences of large fund assortments. We examine the effect of offering 401k participants an allocation default option in the form of targeted retirement funds. These funds automatically allocate dollars across stocks and bonds in a proportion appropriate to one’s expected retirement date. Thus, as one nears retirement, the asset mix is automatically adjusted to a more conservative portfolio structure.

We also seek to understand the impact of individual differences on the behavior patterns of 401k investors in Study 2. Specifically, we measure the extent to which an individual is a decision maximizer versus satisficer (Simon 1956, Schwartz 2002). Schwartz (2004) suggests that satisficers, or those who, when making decisions, tend to settle for an option that is 'good enough’ rather than worrying about the possibility that there might be a better alternative, are less subject to the mental costs and decision dissonance involved in choosing from larger assortments. Maximizers, on the other hand, typically spend excessive amounts of time conducting information search prior to a choice, and then are plagued by doubts after the choice has been made. We expect that it is decision maximizers who are more likely to be paralyzed by the arrays of large fund assortments and who will be more likely to exhibit the negative consequences associated with large assortments. (Study 2 status: In progress.)

The present research thus explores the myriad effects of assortment size on investor psychology and decision-making behavior, and tests several moderators. We hope to provide insight and direction to fiduciaries responsible for designing and implementing retirement plans in the best interest of their employees. And, by uncovering the effects of decision-making style on this process, we hope to provide insight and direction to individual consumers intent on understanding why they do what they do, and what they can do to enhance their decision quality and choice satisfaction levels.


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Kristin Diehl, University of South Carolina


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 32 | 2005

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