The Jam Experiment: On Choice


I talk a lot about The Jam Experiment. Now, stop me if you’ve heard this one, because this is not BREAKING NEWS. In fact, the results of this particular study were released ten years ago by some students at my neighborhood academic institution, Columbia University. The Jam Experiment (officially titled “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?”) explores choice: specifically, what’s available to us, our experience of choice when we sense we are limited or have a surfeit of options, and how we feel about what we chose after the fact. The options available to each of us on a daily basis ten years ago pale in comparison to those options each of us encounters today. Now more than ever, it’s relevant. In short, The Jam Experiment may lend insight into why we as a culture are so perennially dissatisfied, why we’re addicted to The Next Big Thing, and why even the most gifted among us may suffer in a malaise of regret or inertia. We'll get into each of those topics on Stay Out Of School down the line, but for now, we need to know the nuts and bolts of The Jam Experiment.


Too Many Options Make You Less Likely to Actually Choose Something

Here’s the experiment in a nutshell (and please, feel free to read the whole thing via the above link if you’re a budding econometric researcher and want to look for causality and correlative errors): essentially, in the first of three experiments shoppers were presented with jam at the grocery store. Some shoppers saw a display that included 6 different flavors; others encountered a display that offered 30. There was little difference in the taste testing behaviors of the shoppers at either table. However, thirty percent of those individuals who visited the table that offered only six choices actually purchased jam, while a mere three percent made purchases after visiting the table that offered 24 options. According to the researchers, “Even though consumers presumably shop at this particular store in part because of the large number of selections available, having "too much" choice seems nonetheless to have hampered their later motivation to buy.” We may want to read that as “having ‘too much’ choice…hampered their later motivation to commit.”

*When You Have Fewer Choices, You’ll Go After What You Choose with Gusto

A second stage of the experiment offered students the opportunity to write an extra credit paper for a class. No information on the way the essay would be graded was offered; instead, the assignment was essentially “choose from this list of topics and write two pages about it.” Again, some students were given six topic options; others were given a list of thirty from which to choose. This time, not only did more students complete the assignment who were given six options, but they also wrote papers of higher quality. Across the board, those students who had fewer options participated in droves and elected to perform at a higher level.

*Even Though You Love Your Options, They Ultimately Make You Second Guess Your Choice

The third experiment offered students choices of chocolate. This one gets a little more complicated, but ultimately strives to measure satisfaction with a choice when one is choosing between a relatively limited or large number of options. Students were given choices of Godiva chocolates (you know, choosing between Raspberry Truffle and 70% Cocoa, etc.)— again, there were six choices for those in the limited group and thirty choices for those in the extensive-choice group. At this point I’m sure it comes as no surprise that, while they reported a higher level of satisfaction with having all those choices than did the limited selection group, “participants [in the extended-options group] proved more dissatisfied and regretful of the choices they made…”Let’s repeat that: everyone was really happy to have more options, they sensed that it was better, and they reported enjoying the process of making the decision, albeit more difficult than it would have been if they’d been limited. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, the extensive-choice participants reported higher levels of dissatisfaction and regret than those who had not had many options at all.*In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard Professor of Psychology Daniel Gilbert famously admonishes his readers to avoid using variety as the “spice of life,” suitable for shaking up every circumstance. Instead, he suggests that if you’re visiting your favorite restaurant only once a week or so, go ahead and get your favorite dish each time—the time between visits really does allow for consistent, happy consumption of your Penne alla Vodka. Perhaps whomever suggested that “variety is the spice of life” meant that “wrestling through options” is the spice of life (as the Jam Experiment proves we to love to feel like we have extensive choices), but ultimately, it’s consistency, limitation, and giving careful consideration only to those choices that truly matter to us that ultimately motivates us to embrace our choices. We’ll delve into moments of relevancy of The Jam Experiment down the line, but for now I think making sure we’re all on the same page is imperative. Are you a choice junky?

Elizabeth KingComment