If you’ve ever struggled to decide which present to buy family and friends, join the club.

It’s not easy thanks to the huge array of creative gifts available nowadays.

Although we all think we like a wide selection of options, it’s the enormity of choice that often prevents us from choosing. It’s known as the’ paradox of choice’ and it’s something that my friend Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and Mark Lepper of Stanford University have studied for over ten years. They were the first academics to empirically demonstrate the downside of having too much choice when they studied people buying jam.

They discovered that when the choice was big – 24 flavours -people were more likely to sample a few jams but less likely to actually buy one. On the other hand, when faced with a much smaller choice of just six jams, people sampled less but were ten times more likely to buy.

Sheena went on to analyse pension fund choices.  When given a choice of just three, 75% of people chose one or them. (They eliminate one then choose from the two remaining.) But when the choice was greatly increased, the number of people choosing a pension reduced. The same holds true for pizza or pyjamas, lipstick or loft insulation. We like choice but we don’t choose.

Of course, the ‘paradox of choice’ isn’t limited to shopping. Some people are still choosing a career at 30, whilst many eligible bachelors eventually wind up alone. Not even a pension pot to console them. Or a jam pot come to that. The good news is that there a few coping strategies for today’s mega-choice world.

But not too many, obviously.

That would be counter-productive.

The one time when we don’t find it difficult to choose is when we have an articulated preference.
For instance, whenever you buy a chocolate bar at a petrol station, you typically choose from your favourite seven. What you’re doing is preference matching. You go for what Nobel Laureate Herb Simon first referred to as a ‘satisficing’ option: the first decent choice that fits your preference. The alternative would be to exhaustively scan the entire shelf until you find the perfect choice. So we don’t do that.

Unfortunately, people who strive for ‘maximisation’ are more prone to depression. And because they strive for perfection – something that can rarely be attained – they are also more prone to regret. So the trick is to study the options and then settle on something you feel good about. It doesn’t have to be the perfect choice, just one you’re happy with.

But does it really make any difference? In another study carried out at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, they discovered that most people’s brains tend to make mountains out of molehills when it comes to comparing products. The lead researcher was a guy called Carey Morewedge, who interestingly went on to marry a woman called Mary Loadsamoney and is believed to be living comfortably somewhere in the Hamptons. Carey and Mary.

I so wish that was true.

Anyway, according to Carey (whose surname really IS More-wedge), comparing prices might get us a better deal, but we’re wasting our time if we think we can really judge how well a present will be appreciated by comparing its merits. To prove the point, the study asked participants how much they would enjoy eating a potato chip.

That’s a crisp to you and me.

Half the participants chose a crisp from a table that also contained other, more luxurious snacks, such as candy bars (that’s chocolate to you and me.) The other half chose their crisp from a table laden with less luxurious snacks such as sardines and SPAM.

When asked to predict how well they thought they would enjoy eating the crisp, the people in the room that also had the less appetising snacks on the table consistently predicted that their enjoyment of the crisp would be greater than that predicted by the other participants whose enjoyment was obviously tempered with the sight of other, more tasty treats. However, when they actually ate the crisp, both groups reported an identical satisfaction factor; they liked the snacks exactly the same, regardless of the surrounding snacks. This led detractors of the study to eat their words whilst Carey and his team polished off the chocolates.

That probably IS true.

It appears to prove that people enjoy whatever they choose and forget about any comparisons that they might have made beforehand. You simply enjoy something for what it is. Which reminds me of my present to my wife last Christmas. I noticed she was having trouble reaching the upstairs windows when painting the outside of the house. So I bought her a lovely, old fashioned wooden ladder. Admittedly, she looked less than delighted when spotting that three rungs were missing near the top. ‘Don’t worry about those’ I told her ‘Just be careful and enjoy the fifteen rungs that are there’. Then I went to get the video camera just in case. I’m not sure what that story actually proves but this year I’m playing it safe and buying her an ironing board.

So don’t let comparisons mess with your mind. Just go with your gut instinct and don’t spend more than you can afford to. In fact, do what psychologists call ‘satisficing’ which is a combination of ‘satisfy’ and ‘suffice’.  Simply enjoy your shopping and get something that does the job but doesn’t break the bank. And, if it helps, there’s some pretty good deals on household items at Argos right now.

And the lesson for business? Don’t present a potential buyer with too many products, services or endless confusing options. You might think it’s impressive, but it just makes choosing more difficult, not easier.