Rational and Irrational Buying Habits – The Paradox of Choice

The Paradox of Choice – Why More Is Less is a 2004 book by American psychologist Barry Schwartz. In the book, Schwartz argues that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers.

“Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.” —quoted from Ch.5, The Paradox of Choice

As marketers, we hope to sell more goods, right? Can we do that by giving buyers a better shopping experience? I think so.

In The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz explains that eliminating choices can greatly reduce stress and gives examples of how to limit choices to a manageable number. Following is a summary of some of our favorite points in the book.

Familiarity Breeds Likability

People rate familiar things more positively than unfamiliar things. The effect has been demonstrated with many things, including words, Chinese characters, paintings, pictures of faces, geometric figures, and sounds. In studies of interpersonal attraction, the more often a person is seen by someone, the more pleasing and likeable that person appears to be.

This is why bad advertising can work. When people see something enough times, they remember it. They start to like it. However, our goal should be to create advertising that people remember even if they see it once. This creates a much better return on your investment.

Sunk Costs

You buy a pair of shoes that turn out to be really uncomfortable. The more expensive they were, the more you will try to wear them. Eventually, you will stop wearing them, but you won’t get rid of them. And, the more you paid for them, the longer they will sit in your closet.

At some point, after the shoes have been fully “depreciated” psychologically, you will finally throw them away. But, the cost shouldn’t matter after the purchase if the shoes are useless to you.

We charge new customers a 30% deposit on a new project for this reason. Once a person is financially invested in a project, they are also emotionally invested and will put more energy into the process. This improves the final product.

Decisions with Trade Offs

Conflict induces people to avoid decisions when the stakes are trivial. Schwartz uses the following example. He originally wrote about DVD players:

DVD player sales varied when positioned alone versus next to another brand on sale.


The third offer flags the good deal as obvious by offering a not great deal with it. And, more people bought overall!

Trivial Decisions can be Important

Even decisions as trivial as renting a movie become important if we believe we are revealing something significant about ourselves.

How we setup choices for our customers will make a big difference in how easily they make buying decisions.

We highly recommend this book for anyone selling goods or services (and for those that buy!). You’ll think a lot about your rational and irrational buying habits.

Buy the book on
The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

We’ll also send a free copy of the book to one or two people that leave comments below.
Let us know your thoughts!


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