Are You Offering Your Children Too Many Choices?
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Marketing Policy Sep 5, 2017

Are You Offer­ing Your Chil­dren Too Many Choices?

Decid­ing between an abun­dance of options leads to less engage­ment with the final choice.

A child makes a choice from a large choice set.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Michal Maimaran

Michal Maimaran was out walk­ing in Evanston when she bumped into her family’s pedi­a­tri­cian and struck up a friend­ly con­ver­sa­tion — a chance encounter that inspired a new research project. 

Maimaran, a research asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School, has been study­ing deci­sion-mak­ing in chil­dren for sev­er­al years. So her ears perked up when the doc­tor men­tioned he had observed par­ents giv­ing chil­dren lots of options about var­i­ous day-to-day activ­i­ties: At the park, would she rather play on the slide, or the swings, or kick a ball around, or throw a Fris­bee, or climb a tree? At home, which of the dozens of books on her shelves does she want to read?

The doc­tor was trou­bled by this approach. And Maimaran knew research has shown that hav­ing an abun­dance of choic­es can be a bad thing — at least for adults.

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Psy­chol­o­gists and mar­keters have pre­vi­ous­ly found evi­dence that hav­ing lots of choic­es can feel over­whelm­ing or make us regret­ful of our final choice — a phe­nom­e­non known as choice over­load.” But no one had real­ly looked at how an abun­dance of choice affects chil­dren, and in par­tic­u­lar, how hav­ing so many affects how engaged they are with the option they ulti­mate­ly choose. 

Maimaran start­ed to reflect on the choic­es she offered her own chil­dren, and crit­i­cal­ly, how much they actu­al­ly engaged with their final selec­tion. After all, she says, what mat­ters most is, after you chose some­thing, what do you do with it?”

Thus, a research project was born.

She found that there can be neg­a­tive con­se­quences to giv­ing chil­dren lots of options to choose from. In sev­er­al stud­ies she showed that when kids pick from a large set of options, they spend less time engaged with their choice than when they pick from a small set.

Over time, Maimaran sug­gests, using choice sets strate­gi­cal­ly can have an effect on the kinds of activ­i­ties that chil­dren find inter­est­ing and enjoy, some­thing par­ents, edu­ca­tors, and pol­i­cy­mak­ers may want to keep in mind. 

What mat­ters most is, after you chose some­thing, what do you do with it?” 

For exam­ple, if you want to keep your child’s nose in a book, you may be bet­ter off giv­ing them just two to three titles to choose from, rather than a hefty stack. The same idea holds for oth­er ben­e­fi­cial activ­i­ties, such as edu­ca­tion­al games and play­ing out­side. On the flip­side, though not stud­ied direct­ly by Maimaran, you might be able to short­en the amount of time kids spend on less desir­able activ­i­ties, such as video games, not by cajol­ing them, but sim­ply by offer­ing them a larg­er selec­tion of games to choose from.

Curi­ous George and the Study of Decision-Making

Maimaran got some help in her research from a beloved mon­key and a man with a yel­low hat.

Curi­ous George’s cre­ators prob­a­bly didn’t plan on it, but they wrote the per­fect series for a study of children’s deci­sion-mak­ing: the books includ­ed in the study are the same length, 24 pages each, and share a sim­i­lar cov­er design scheme. As an added bonus, the series is wide­ly pop­u­lar among both boys and girls, elim­i­nat­ing con­cerns about gen­der as a con­found­ing factor.

In one of the stud­ies, preschool­ers were asked to select a book from a set of either two or sev­en Curi­ous George titles. After­ward, the kids, who were not read­ing yet, were invit­ed to look at the book for as long they liked.

Maimaran finds that chil­dren who picked between two Curi­ous George books spent less time arriv­ing at their choice and more time look­ing at the book com­pared with chil­dren who chose from among sev­en options.

When she repeat­ed the test with a dif­fer­ent group of chil­dren using sets of dif­fer­ent­ly col­ored build­ing blocks, rather than books, Maimaran observed the same result: chil­dren who picked from a set of two spent twice the time play­ing with the blocks com­pared with chil­dren who picked from among six options. 

The effect of choice set size on children's decision-making.
Frank Elavsky, Northwestern IT

So why is this happening?

Maimaran says more research is need­ed to under­stand the pre­cise mech­a­nism under­ly­ing the effect of choice size on engage­ment in chil­dren. But she sus­pects that when children’s cog­ni­tive resources are spent on the act of choos­ing some­thing, there is less atten­tion and ener­gy left to enjoy the thing itself. At the same time, she sug­gests, choos­ing from the large set can be an engag­ing task in and of itself, espe­cial­ly for chil­dren, leav­ing the chil­dren with a less of a need to engage with the option they end­ed up choosing.

When Mak­ing Choic­es Is Dif­fi­cult, Yet Fun

Beyond engage­ment with their final choice, Maimaran also won­dered how the kids felt about the actu­al act of choosing.

So anoth­er study asked the preschools if they thought choos­ing from a small set would be eas­i­er or hard­er than choos­ing from a large set, as well as which they thought would be more fun to choose from. The con­sen­sus was that the small set would make choos­ing eas­i­er, but choos­ing from a large set would be more fun.

And, by a wide mar­gin, they stat­ed they would pre­fer to pick from a large set.

It’s a puz­zling pref­er­ence. Why would kids opt to do some­thing they find harder?

It could be that the desire to have fun and enjoy over­rides avoid­ance of dif­fi­cult tasks,” Maimaran proposes.

Or per­haps kids are sim­ply ratio­nal actors. After all, she says, the more options you have, the more like­ly you are to find one that suits your needs, even if it is a more dif­fi­cult process.

But, it seems, being able to find the most suit­able choice still does not guar­an­tee you will use it more. 

Why More Isn’t Always Better

Maimaran’s research finds that offer­ing chil­dren too many choic­es makes them less like­ly to engage with their final selec­tion. Do adults respond in the same way. 

Pre­vi­ous evi­dence sug­gests that choice over­load” in adults can lead to less sat­is­fac­tion with a final choice, or the inabil­i­ty to make a choice at all. But because very lit­tle research has explic­it­ly stud­ied how much adults use their final selec­tion, it is hard for Maimaran to pre­dict whether the behav­ior she observed in preschool­ers would hold true through­out the lifes­pan. After all, adults, more so than young chil­dren, may feel the need to jus­ti­fy their lengthy deci­sion-mak­ing process by engag­ing more with their choice.

When it comes to her own chil­dren, Maimaran is prac­tic­ing what her research suggests. 

If her kids are­ mak­ing a pur­chase, she’ll iden­ti­fy a small sub­set of options and let them choose from among those. This is eas­i­er done online than in the store,” she says, where you’re just over­whelmed, stand­ing in front of this aisle with so many options.” 

Featured Faculty

Michal Maimaran

Research Associate Professor and Clinical Associate Professor of Marketing

About the Writer

Susie Allen is a freelance writer in Chicago.

About the Research

Maimaran, Michal. 2017. "To Increase Engagement, Offer Less: The Effect of Assortment Size on Children’s Engagement." Judgment and Decision Making. 12(3): 198–207.

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