Let’s say you’re Valve. Hello Valve. I notice you’ve started your Winter Steam Sale again. That’s awesome, but I’ve noticed you’re doing something different this year. In the past you’ve metered out the sale prices in the form of daily deals and “Flash Sales” that rotated every eight hours or so. We had to come back to the site constantly to see what was on sale.
This year, though, you just sort of put everything on sale at once:
A little further down the homepage it says that there’s “4,076 titles on sale across Steam.” That’s… a lot of options to consider.1
Why the change? There are actually many reasons why the rotating sales worked well, plus the entirety of Chapter 9 in my book deals with digital sales expands on the topic. But here’s another reason why I think this year’s “put it ALL on sale NOW” strategy is a bad idea: sometimes too many options can be demotivating.
Too many choices can, in fact, lead to making no choice.
Someone assuming that all shoppers are completely rational and have no boundaries around their mental abilities would also assume that more choices are probably better than fewer. Maybe it’s that way in Vulcan supermarkets and Spock would have no trouble choosing between three hundred options for canned corn or indie platforming games. But that’s not how humans work. Back in 2000 Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper published a series of studies where they tested the assumption that having more choices is always better.2
In their first experiment, they set up a booth at an upscale supermarket where they invited shoppers to sample different kinds of Wilkin & Sons jams. Some shoppers were presented with a choice of 6 different jams while others had 24 different flavors to choose from.3 They then measured how many people from each group ended up buying a jar of jam. It stands to reason that those who had more choices would be more likely to find something they really liked and buy it, right? Here’s what the researchers found:
- Of those with 6 options, 31% bought something
- Of those with 24 options, 3% bought something
Huh. Next, the researchers offered a bunch of college students the opportunity to write an essay for extra credit in a psychology class. The essay was optional, so nobody was required to do it, but if they did they had to choose from pre-approved topics. Half the students were given a list of 6 essay topics to choose from while the others were given a long list of 30 choices. Here’s what they found:
- Of those with 6 options, 74% did the extra credit assignment
- Of those with 30 options, 60% did it
Not as big a difference with the grocery shoppers, but still a lot. The researchers also found that people faced with lots of choices report being happier about the situation than do those with only a few. But those same people also said that they found the experience more difficult and more frustrating.
Given that, why did those with 4 to 5 times as many choices decide so often to not exercise ANY of them? Because when faced with an overwhelming number of choices, we quickly lose our ability to compare them all at once and so we look for choice strategies that make comparisons easy. We jettison choices that are dissimilar to others. We focus on just a few limited characteristics. We overweigh characteristics that are easy to quantify and understand. We stop perusing as soon as we find one options that meets some minimum threshold. But even those strategies can be difficult, so a lot of the time we just go with the status quo: we walk away without making any choice because that’s the easiest way out of a frustrating and mentally taxing situation.
This is why, among other reasons, it’s better for Valve to offer (or at least promote) daily deals with a relatively limited list of titles. If they just put up a big list of 4,000 games, we’d be less likely to buy something because it would overwhelm our normal choice strategies.4 Too much choice is demotivating.