Choices, Choices: Limits of the Brain

“Choice” is the obsession of our time. Marketers (and frequently UI designers, business developers, chefs, salespeople, etc.) respond to focus groups and surveys calling for greater choice only to discover that adding the 350th variation of essentially the same product or service produces no bump in sales.  More variety should lead to more revenue.  After all, that’s what people are calling for.  Unfortunately, the concept of “choice” and biology eventually collide.  Culturally, we are predisposed to talk about choice and demand variety, but out brains often get in the way because we can only process so much before we are overloaded.  Consider a few aspects of the biology of choice.

Visual Chunking

Our working memory declines rapidly, often as quickly as 10 seconds, and studies based on working memory have proven that seven is the approximate number of items the mind can hold for a short time. The duration of short-term memory (when rehearsal or active maintenance is prevented) is believed to be in the order of seconds. Estimates of short-term memory capacity are 7±2 units, depending upon the experimental design used to estimate capacity. As distractions increase, the ability to process them and increase the number of units stored in memory decreases.

The practice of dividing numbers or items into easily understood groups is called visual chunking, which takes place in one of two modes: perceptual and goal oriented. Perceptual chunking happens unconsciously, and takes place through a series of wired-in shortcuts in the brain. An easy way to think about this is to look at a credit card or phone number. Ever notice how the numbers are chunked into groups of three and four? Without realizing it, the brain processes the information because it is divided into small, easily understood groups. Goal-oriented chunking is a more active process.  Too much choice and we can’t categorize well, which leads to us giving up.  Or at least gravitating to the object or service that is the easiest to understand, manipulate and apply to our daily lives.

Sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system

The sympathetic system is our fight or flight response to stimuli. The parasympathetic system tells our body to respond to stimuli by relaxing and reflecting. Sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions typically function in opposition to each other. But this opposition is better understood as complimentary. For an analogy, one may think of the sympathetic division as the accelerator and the parasympathetic division as the brake. The sympathetic division typically functions in actions requiring quick responses. The parasympathetic division functions with actions that do not require immediate reaction. Most marketing, especially in a retail environment, is designed to scream at us, to affect the sympathetic system by bombarding us with a host of options.  The problem is that we can’t process it well.  Again, too many choices tend to overwhelm.

Multitasking vs. task switching

In today’s information-rich society, people frequently attempt to perform many tasks at once. This often requires them to juggle their limited resources in order to accomplish each of these tasks successfully. This juggling is not always easy, and in many cases can lead to greater inefficiency in performing each individual task. For example, using a cellular telephone to find prices while shopping can lead to confusion.  In the brain, juggling multiple tasks is performed by mental executive processes that manage the individual tasks and determine how, when, and with what priorities they get performed. These executive processes act like a choreographer who orchestrates many individual dancers so that they can perform as a single unit, or an air-traffic controller who schedules many airplanes that take off and land on the same runway. If the individual dancers or airplanes are not scheduled appropriately, the results can be catastrophic.  Too many choices lead to an inability to manage the number of decision mechanisms and to look for simplicity.

So, am I suggesting that companies do away with the number of choices they provide customers?  Hardly. What I am suggesting is that they scale them back or at the least provide visual and categorical systems that help the brain do its job.  It’s not enough to respond to what people tell you they want because what you want isn’t always what you need (yet more wisdom from the Rolling Stones).  Knowing the mechanics of  the brain and cognition is as important a step in understanding your consumers as learning to listen to what they say.






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