How A Surplus Of Choice Weakens Brands

Jamie MustardOctober 28, 20195 min

It’s counterintuitive, but people don’t really want unlimited choices because “too much of everything” has turned making a choice into a painful undertaking. Just why is it that making choices can be so paralyzing?

Freud had a hypothesis called ego depletion that claimed our ego is innately linked to mental activities involving the transfer of energy. Social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, in tribute to Freud’s theory, demonstrated through his experiments that mental energy for exerting self-control is a limited, finite resource. Then, under Baumeister, postdoctoral student Jean Twenge, having firsthand experience of the exhaustion of her own wedding planning, began conducting a series of studies focused on decision fatigue. Those who had already made a number of choices on any given day—compared to those who had not had to deal with as many choices that day—had far less willpower and self-control. The abundance of choices and decision making had moved the test group along what psychologists call the Rubicon model of action phases to a point of weakness and apathy.

What’s even more profound, as Schwartz argues, too much choice—leading with too much messaging or too many options—can have serious psychological repercussions.

According to Schwartz, choice overload creates:

1. anxiety and stress about choosing and making the right choice
2. paralysis, or not making any choice at all, because one does not want to make the wrong choice
3. dissatisfaction with any choice made, wondering whether we could have made a different or better choice
4. self-blame for making a poor choice

In his TED Talk, Schwartz ventures that choice overload is one contributor to the soaring rates of clinical depression and suicide in the industrial world; after making a decision, “people have experiences that are disappointing because their standards are so high, and then, when they have to explain these experiences to themselves, they think they’re at fault.” The “opportunity cost” of so much choice is that when we do make a choice, we are ultimately dissatisfied with the choices we have made because we wonder if we made the right choice or could have chosen better.

For instance, take a walk down the breakfast cereal aisle of any grocery store. There you’ll see a staggering example of just how many versions of not just breakfast cereal but a horde of similar items are now available to us. This can make choosing what you want frustrating and anxiety inducing.

Similarly, the feeling and psychological toll of dilution can have nearly identical and devastating consequences. Anxiety about whether one will ever be seen or heard, stress about not ever being seen or heard, paralysis caused by an internal feeling that we may not ever be seen or heard—so why even try?—are all real experiences that come from feeling “diluted.” Depression from not having been seen or heard and ultimately dissatisfaction with our lives, because we feel invisible or that we will not be able to get our message out there, be recognized, and self-actualize.

These feelings could cause anyone of any economic class to engage in harmful behavior. When we have no hope or certainty about future expression, we might engage in behaviors that indicate that we don’t care about the future. So, for many, dilution means pain.

A Choice Surplus Weakens Brands

Most of us inherently know we are fading into the background of an information-, services-, and consumer product–flooded world. The decision and choice fatigue that affects all of us, whether we are aware of it or not, is well documented. The New York Times, in 2011, published a fascinating article on social psychology studies across diverse personal decisions, from buying a car to choosing soap. In every instance it became obvious that the greater the number of choices we present to others, the less engaged they become over time. We have become grossly choice fatigued. We are more likely than ever to just disconnect rather than engage with anything that is too busy or gives us too many options.

Surplus of choice is directly related to the dilution effect—it again waters you down as an individual and mutes your impact on the world. The influx of thousands of new products and services combines with information overload to drown you and your product out. Like with the onslaught of mass information, explored in chapter one, this abundance of choices that compete for attention around you is absolutely overwhelming.

Technology has increased not just the amount of advertising we’re exposed to but also the sheer volume of every kind of choice hammering us. Consider the absolutely mind-numbing volume of choices we have if we want to sit down and watch something on demand. Forget what to watch—first you have to decide whether to open Hulu, Netflix, DirecTV, Sling TV, Amazon, Roku, PlayStation . . . You get it. Whether we’re shopping in a grocery store or browsing the web, we are faced with an overwhelming number of options—too many for any one person to digest. It makes your own voice, your own art, your own business, and your own life smaller and harder for others to see.

There is a great lesson here: Yes, you are competing against an enormous amount of other content or products or people for attention. Blocks are the antidote. Blocks bring to light the things we need to see, in a way that they can be seen. By presenting your work through Blocks, you can help alleviate your audience’s decision fatigue by being the clear, uncomplicated, obvious choice. Your Block will be a breath of fresh air.

A Block is the anatomy of what makes anything iconic. A Block is always a simple, OVERSIZED image, idea, concept, dominant nursery-rhyme-like melody, physical form or phrase that can be instantly understood before our brain has a chance to process it, like a roadsign. There is a simple instinctual reflex that causes us to lock on to anything oversized, monolithic and simple. In today’s world, anything busy gets instantly discarded – especially in a digitally overloaded, over messaged population. We win or lose our intended audience in that microsecond where they lock on or reject us. With the primal laws of Blocks as outlined in my new book, THE ICONIST: The Art and Science Of Standing Out, anyone can use these laws to instantly grab and hold attention at will and with deliberation rather than hope, luck, chance or years. Once a Block has been repeated it will instantly take hold in the mind of your intended recipient. Once they have taken it on it is no longer a Block and is now an icon in the mind.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Jamie Mustard, excerpted from his book, THE ICONIST, The Art And Science Of Standing Out, BenBella Books.

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