Today is Election Day in America, a time when citizens are asked to make important choices about the way our country is going to be run for the next several years.

The day got me thinking about choice as a broad phenomenon and also, more narrowly, what it means for sales reps and the people who manage them.

Here’s the thought I came up with, which you may consider either profound or obvious, your choice:

The two-party system has done so well in the United States — something that is emphatically not true in every democracy — largely because it’s easier for voters to pick one of two candidates than, say, one of five, or six. (Yes, I know third- and fourth-party candidates regularly appear on ballots in America, but it’s exceedingly rare that any of them enjoys much electoral success.)

This is an effect that also holds true in sales.

Look, for instance, at a study done by psychologist Sheena Iyengar and published in her book “The Art of Choosing.” A tasting promotion was set up in a grocery store, with customers invited to try different varieties of fruit jam. There were two stations where people could nosh on samples of the jams — one where six options were presented, and another with 24 options.

Escaping the Time Trap

Intuitively, you might think that the more products that were presented, the more likely customers would be to choose to buy a jar of something. After all, 24 jams compared with six means four times the physiological and emotional “hooks,” doesn’t it?

What actually happened was that about 30% of the customers who visited the six-jam station bought at least one jar, while only 3% of those at the 24-jam station did so.

Right or not?
The psychology behind this fascinating experiment is actually rather simple. When people are given a wide array of choices, they experience increased angst lest they make the wrong one. If there are only two alternatives, the chance of getting it right — or at least right enough that you can defend your pick to yourself — is 50%. If there are five, that chance drops to 20%.

This is not to say that the buyer necessarily goes through a series of mathematical calculations, but rather that unconscious or semi-conscious processing is going on along these rough lines.

And when the number of choices gets up into the double digits, our cognitive abilities pretty much freak out under the pressure. We may end up choosing based on some trivial factor that leaps out at us for idiosyncratic reasons — such as, in a consumer situation, because we like the color.

Sales and democracy
What are the implications for sales, and for democracy? In the sales arena, nobody is saying you should radically slash the range of choice you give your customers. After all, you may miss out on a sale if you don’t present to your buyer a product configuration that conforms to his/her needs and desires. But you’d be well advised, all things being equal, to boil down the selections to a manageable number.

So, for example, if your buyer faces many choices, you might break down that process into a series of choices — sort of like primaries in politics. Say your buyer faces eight choices. First ask him or her to select, say, the top four. Then, out of that four, have him or her select two. Then the top one.
At each stage, the decision is much simpler.

In the electoral arena, nobody is saying that candidates from parties other than D and R shouldn’t be allowed on the ballot. The laws of the various states guarantee Libertarians, Greens, Constitutionalists and others the right to present their candidates, too, as long as they meet certain requirements, typically a given number of signatures on a petition.

But judging by the results — the United States has not, since the Civil War, elected a president who was neither Republican nor Democrat — we Americans prefer a limited number of choices when it comes to our presidential candidates. The number two, to be precise. And human psychology helps explain why that is.

1 Comment

  • Vince Lunetta says:

    Well done, Dave. When choosing, our mental tool kits are set to make almost binary decisions. I’m not surprised with fewer choices, more items are purchased. A similar phenomena happens in NJ diners.
    Go to the diner with a 20 page, five pound, laminated menu and then a five star restaurant with a one page eight selection menu. Notice the speed in selection. Do limited choices calm the mind? I think so.

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