More Choice = Less Action

I recently walked into a McDonald’s in Orlando, Florida carrying a simple set of instructions: return to the hotel with three Egg McMuffins and three orders of hash browns.

I walked up to the counter and placed my order.

Me: Three Egg McMuffins and three orders of hash browns, please.

Woman at counter: Our Egg McMuffins are $2.59 each or two for $3.00.

Me: Okay, give me four.

Woman: How about the hash browns? They’re a dollar each or two for $1.50.

Me (thinking furiously): Umm… okay, I’ll just take two.

A few minutes went by, and then she was back.

Woman: We’re short one round egg, and cooking one will take a few minutes. Or you can have a folded egg now.

Me: I’ll take the folded egg.

When she brought out my food she threw a couple of apple turnovers into the bag at no charge — “for the inconvenience.”

Two thoughts occurred to me as I returned to the hotel:

1. I had just gotten a screamin’ deal: four Egg McMuffins, two orders of hash browns, and two apple turnovers for about nine bucks.

2. The next time I’m in Orlando, I will go out of my way to avoid that particular McDonald’s.

The woman behind the counter probably believed that she was helping me by offering the discounts.

In reality, she was making my life difficult. I wanted a nice, simple transaction, and instead I got something complicated.

The experience stuck in my mind a few days later when I was asked to evaluate a TV commercial for an aesthetic medicine practice. The ad suggested two possible actions: call on the phone for an appointment, or log onto the practice’s web site.

I advised the clinic to simplify the message and just give viewers instructions to call on the phone. Advertisers often find that just making this simple change significantly increases the response from the campaign.

The strategy seems counter-intuitive, but the reasoning is sound: a viewer faced with a phone number and a web address in 30 seconds won’t have the time or mental bandwidth to write down both. Faced with a decision about which one to remember, many people wind up remembering neither.

In “The Paradox of Choice”, Barry Schwartz discussed a series of studies in which car buyers were offered an array of choices:

Even though their decision was purely hypothetical, participants experienced substantial negative emotion when choosing between Cars A and B. And if the experimental procedure gave them the opportunity, they refused to make the decision at all. So the researchers concluded that being forced to confront trade-offs in making decisions makes people unhappy and indecisive.

Participants in these studies showed the pattern of reluctance to make trade-offs whether the stakes were high or low. Confronting any trade-off, it seems, is incredibly unsettling. And as the available alternatives increase, the extent to which choices will require trade-offs will increase as well.

What, then, do people do if virtually all decisions involve trade-offs and people resist making them? One option is to postpone or avoid the decision.

The last thing you want when you advertise is for your prospect to postpone or avoid a decision. Paradoxical though it may seem, offering one choice instead of two will increase the likelihood that your prospect will actually take action.


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