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Why more isn't always better: How choice overload can paralyze decision-making for both HCP and patients.

Choice architecture principles from behavioral science explain how too many choices can turn HCPs and patients away from your brand.
ImageNewristics Image10 June 2019

Choice Overload can paralyze consumers

As the name implies, more choice isn’t always better. Have you ever gone to pick up headache medication at the drugstore only to leave with an even greater headache? A typical drugstore will have dozens of headache medications available. They vary by brand, strength, and purpose—some are solely for headaches and others for headaches and fever relief—the sheer number of choices can leave a person suffering from Choice Overload.

So instead of carefully comparing alternatives, the average person is likely to choose the medication with little thought, perhaps looking for the cheapest alternative, a recognized brand, or the first headache medication they see.

The catch-22 is that having too few choices is frustrating and you want to look elsewhere while having too many choices is overwhelming and you want to stop looking altogether.


Choice Overload in snack bar category
Customers Say they want more choices when you talk to them in market research. But through behavioral experiments, it is revealed that people do NOT want many options and they can even be so overwhelmed that they don’t choose anything at all. Think back to a time you went to Home Depot or another retail store, and you were overwhelmed with choices and walked out.

You felt overwhelmed because you did not have enough time or a basis to make decisions. For the retailer, this can be damaging! Over the last decade, the snack bar category has exploded with options. If you go to any mid to large-sized grocery store and go to the snack bar aisle you have:

  • Raw
  • Gluten-Free
  • Grain Free
  • Nut Free
  • Macrobiotic
  • Seed-based
  • Organic
  • Non-GMO
  • Nutrition Bar
  • Energy Bar
  • Performance bar
  • Dry or refrigerated

WOW, this is already overwhelming for a customer. What if I told you these options are also available from 50 brands and in 500 different flavors? You are probably having trouble deciding which to grab for your afternoon snack! You may end up walking away and grabbing a simple banana or a bag of chips instead. Choice Overload can result in a very big loss of revenue for retailers.

Choice Overload in diabetes

Unlike a category like snack bars, a physician cannot just walk away, so Choice Overload manifests itself in a different way. About 10 years ago, the diabetes category included 3-5 classes of drugs: TZDs, Sulfonylurea, Insulin, and Biguanide (Metformin). TZDs were later recalled due to cardiovascular risks.

Over time a whole series of new classes of drugs have come onto the scene and within each class about 3-5 distinct brands. Then, new combinations of these new classes and then combinations of these new drugs with Metformin or Insulin or multiple injectables were introduced. This category is a potential hotbed for Choice Overload!

Choice Overload can lead to a “wait and see” approach. This approach was a problem before the introduction of all these new drugs! All these choices do not remedy this long-recognized concern in diabetes treatment. There is not enough sense of urgency and treatment intensification. Hundreds of papers say that diabetes should be treated more aggressively. These new choices haven’t made this documented issue worse, but they haven’t made it better. By de facto, physicians are delaying or procrastinating treatment.

How to use Choice Overload for marketers

First, you should determine whether Choice Overload is helping or hurting you.

  • Are there multiple classes in your category?
  • Do some classes have branded options and others don’t?
  • How differentiated are the brands in your class?
  • Do you have too many flavors/styles/color options available?

Once you know whether you should “feed or fight” Choice Overload you can:

Feed - use appropriate data/logic to discourage ‘cycling’ through choices by repositioning classes with too many options as a commodity and framing your product as a necessity.

Fight - separate yourself from the rest, downplay any class associations, dial up unique brand associations, and then emphasize your own array of options to encourage buyers' customization.