The Positive Psychology of NO CHOICE

When asked why he always wore grey or blue suits, Barack Obama responded that he had enough other choices to make so this was a choice he could choose not to make. And per psychology studies, this was a smart choice.

choicesWhen asked why he always wore grey or blue suits, Barack Obama responded that he had enough other choices to make so this was a choice he could choose not to make. And per psychology studies, this was a smart choice.

Making choices actually depletes our brain energy and distracts our mental focus in ways that often lead to inertia, or procrastination of important events, and fatigue. In fact, several studies have shown that:

the more little decisions we make, the more it taxes our ability to make bigger decisions that are important to our advancement toward life’s bigger goals.

For example, a study conducted by University of Minnesota psychologist Kathleen Vohs and colleagues showed that participants who made several small choices while shopping were less likely to do well when asked to solve a simple algebra problem. This inability to go from a series of small choices to a more complex mental activity proved true with other tasks they conducted in this same study, which involved college students. Per the task studied involving students from prestigious universities, researchers found that students were more likely to put off studying for important tests if preoccupied with smaller decisions at the same time.

Vohs and her team conducted four different tasks associated with choice for their overall study and made some fascinating observations and conclusions:

  • Making choices can deplete the brain and body, creating mental and physical fatigue
  • Having to make choices is more depleting than just looking at options
  • Implementing choices imposed on you by somebody else is less draining
  • If you anticipate that making choices will be a fun and rewarding experience, the decision process is less depleting

These findings have substantial implications for anyone in marketing, whether B-to-B or B-to-C: If you want your customers to make quick decisions to purchase from you, and have an energizing vs. depleting experience, simplify the decision process by offering fewer choices.

Sounds counter-intuitive to some, but think about it. When you are faced with choosing from dozens of products on a shelf with lots of price and promise variations, you end up having to think more, analyze more, and it often results in muddled thinking and confusion. Per the above studies, you and many other consumers have likely made the choice to not choose when choosing becomes too time-consuming and exhausting. It happens when shopping for cars and even personal products at a grocery store. We get “depleted” mentally when trying to decide which product to purchase based upon our mental process to make sure we get the best deal, best value and don’t make decisions we might regret.

As a business, we need to do whatever we can to make choosing our products simple and energizing vs. depleting.

If you’re selling software as a service, such as a SaaS platform for CRM or some other business function, you likely have a big range of services people can choose from, and different price ranges for “packages” of those services. If you have three packages to choose from, your chances of getting sales quickly are likely going to be greater than if you gave them 10 packages to choose from or ask customers to create their own bundle out of dozens of services you offer.

And if you make that choice “safe,” by providing a generous cancellation or opt-out clause, you take the fear out of an easy choice. This is critical to the psychology of choice, as both of these activities take less energy from our mental capacities. And when we use less energy worrying or stressing or contemplating, we have more energy to anticipate the reward of that decision.

So ask yourself these key questions:

  • Do my offerings or sales model drain or sustain brain energy?
  • How can I simplify choices without making customers feel like they have none?
  • How can I make choices a replenishing, energizing experience that makes customers feel good about their decisions and my brand?

When you can build your sales offerings and marketing messages around the answers to those three questions you can transform your brand’s ability to close deals. And that can transform your bottom line and competitive advantage for a long time to come.

Author: Jeanette McMurtry

Jeanette McMurtry is a psychology-based marketing expert providing strategy, campaign development, and sales and marketing training to brands in all industries on how to achieve psychological relevance for all aspects of a customer's experience. She is the author of the recently released edition of “Marketing for Dummies” (Fifth Edition, Wiley) and “Big Business Marketing for Small Business Budgets” (McGraw Hill). She is a popular and engaging keynote speaker and workshop instructor on marketing psychology worldwide. Her blog will share insights and tactics for engaging B2B and B2C purchasers' unconscious minds which drive 90 percent of our thoughts, attitudes and behavior, and provide actionable and affordable tips for upping sales and ROI through emotional selling propositions. Her blog will share insights and tactics for engaging consumers' unconscious minds, which drive 90 percent of our thoughts and purchasing attitudes and behavior. She'll explore how color, images and social influences like scarcity, peer pressure and even religion affect consumers' interest in engaging with your brand, your message and buying from you. Reach her at

3 thoughts on “The Positive Psychology of NO CHOICE”

  1. “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” – Albert Einstein. That’s why I’ve been eating at Chipotle every day for the past 10 years. One less decision to make while I know I’m eating good food that provides the necessary nutrition for me.

  2. I’m curious what Ms. McMurtry’s thoughts are on Amazon. Searching the phrase “can opener” on their site the shopper can scroll through hundreds of pages of can openers. Amazon’s success has come partially by their ability to offer a seemingly endless selection of product. The shopper can then filter based on price, ratings, and several other criteria to narrow the hundreds of pages down to a “manageable” few. I think this is empowering to the shopper and contributes to the success of Amazon. So, is there more psychology that AMZ may be leveraging? The same argument holds for other web sites–travel in particular.

    1. hi leo, great comment. when I look at shopping cart abandonment rates for online stores, i suspect we still generate a lot of shopper fatigue online, no matter how sophisticated shopping filters are. my thought is based on the fact that it takes “choices” and mental processes to decide which site to go to, amazon or target or walmart, and often we look for price advantages on a few sites, then go to another site whom we trust or back to the cheapest site to purchase. all of that is taxing mentally and likely contributes to the high percentage of abandoned carts we still have today.

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