Freedom of choice. Pro choice.  Multiple choice. Spoilt for choice.  All common phrases, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world, and possibly strongest in the United States of America.  But does having such a plethora of choice actually make us happy?  And if it can, do we consistently choose accordingly? 

Sheena Iyengar, a Professor at the Columbia Business School, is the author of “The Art of Choosing”, first published in 2010.  Much of the book explores the psychology behind how we choose.  Her own research, as well as the numerous entertaining and insightful studies of others she references, demonstrates the opposite of what one might expect – too much choice can be overwhelming, and we don’t always choose rationally or even in our best interests.

How we choose, according to Ms Iyengar, and even how we define choice, is heavily influenced by the experiences of our upbringing, our culture, and our biases, let alone how choices are manipulated by external forces, such as clever marketing and messaging.  The book contains a whole range of fascinating experiments and studies that support her points, including her own famous “jam study”.  What makes her observations even more poignant is that many of the daily choices we may take for granted, such as which TV show to binge watch next, Ms Iyengar does not have available to her – she’s blind, having lost her sight in her youth due to a degenerative retinal disease.

The good news is we don’t have to be a prisoner to our biases, and can make the best of the choices available to us if we employ a few simple strategies.  But first we need to recognize that choice has limitations.  That we don’t always know how to choose.  And that having more choices does not necessarily mean more freedom and control.

In summary, Ms Iyengar makes three suggestions as to how we can become better at choosing.  First, we need to condition ourselves to make better choices.  Start with simpler, easier choices before tackling complex ones. It’s about building confidence in one’s ability to choose well.  Second, categorise choices.  Grouping similar choices by some common characteristic helps to break down choices into smaller, more bite sized options.  Third, don’t be afraid to seek expert advice when there are people and systems that can process choices more efficiently than we can ourselves.

Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to put these findings into practice in my work as a Management Consultant.  “The Art of Choosing” was actually lent to me by the manager and head barista at a café dedicated to Speciality Coffee in Berlin.  He wanted to understand what I thought and whether he could improve his retail coffee bean sales given the repeated Covid-19 lockdowns that made running the café increasingly unprofitable.  He was particularly focused on a reference in the book to George A. Miller’s research on the capacity limits of our ability to process information, and wanted to apply that to arranging bags of coffee beans in such a way as to make it easier for customers to choose.

Mr. Miller was an American Psychologist, and considered one of the founders of Cognitive Psychology.  He authored a paper in 1956 entitled “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two”. Sometimes referred to as Miller’s Law, the premise is that the average human ability to retain pieces of information in short-term memory is limited to 7 +/- 2 objects.

Based on this theory, and Ms Iyengar’s additional research, we first reduced the choices of retail beans on display at any given time to 6 (distinguishable by country of origin, variety of coffee plant, and tasting notes).  This was further split into two categories, 3 each of Espresso (darker roasts) and Filter (lighter and fruitier).  These two categories represent the different roasting styles that fit with the types of coffee makers most people have at home, effectively cutting the customer’s choices in half.  We put big signs up with the words Espresso and Filter, just to make it more obvious.

Sales doubled.  But we weren’t satisfied we understood the reason.  First, the baseline was low as sales of coffee beans prior to undertaking the project were minimal.  Lockdowns made comparison’s to pre-Covid difficult as it was expected more people would drink coffee at home.  And upgraded Instagram marketing and word-of-mouth may have also contributed.

More interestingly, however, was that every sale essentially required the intervention of a barista.  The vast majority of customers still couldn’t decide on their own, even with less choice, and asked for recommendations.  People recognised the larger coffee growing countries, such as Ethiopia or Colombia.  But as soon as we added Timor L’Este or the Dominican Republic or Uganda, it became harder to choose.  While this fits with Ms Iyengar’s advice to reach out to experts when knowledge of the choices are limited, we noticed the confusion also applied to repeat customers.  These are people who should have been able to easily walk in and grab their favourite bag of beans.  We obviously still hadn’t made it easy enough to choose.

In discussing the issue with a few regulars of the cafe, we came to the conclusion that the labels on the bags weren’t distinguishable enough from each other.  The labels were generally white with black writing and formatted in a similar way – country of origin, coffee plant variety, tasting notes and roasting date.  Most repeat customers wanted to have what they had previously purchased, but couldn’t remember exactly what that was. The labels were all too similar.  Sometimes country of origin was enough to go on, but if we had two varieties from the same country, then we were back to square one again and the baristas had to guess the customer’s preference.

The solution was colour.  There are plenty of studies that demonstrate colour’s ability to assist with memory performance.  That said, we needed to avoid different shades of the same colour as this, according to research, is counterproductive.  Certain colours also have certain meanings culturally, so we had to take that into account.  In the end, we chose colours that represented the tasting notes.  Red was for bold, darker roasts.  Yellow for citrus flavours.  And so on. 

Over the next 6 months, sales doubled again.  This time, most of the other external variables hadn’t changed so drastically, so we could be more confident it was our own efforts.  Repeat customers, in particular, were happier.  They were able to more easily remember what they had previously purchased, and could either buy the same or choose something else to try, all without the barista’s help.  Much more efficient for the café.  We had finally made it easy enough to choose by eliminating what has been dubbed in psychology as “choice paralysis”, the very subject of Ms Iyengar’s jam study.

Choosing can be exhausting and confusing.  To overcome these obstacles, and to help us in our pursuit of happiness, Ms Iyengar’s final piece of advice, included in the Afterword to the Paperback Edition, is to “focus on choices that matter.  Balancing hopes, desires, and an appreciation of the possibilities with a clear-eyed assessment of the limitations: that is the art of choosing.”

Donald L Jurries II

Feature Images: Nathan Dumlao (Coffee Picture), Sheena Iyengar (The Art of Choosing) Donald L. Jurries II

Special Thank You to Lee Davis, Co-Owner, Cafe Manager and Head Barista ot Archetyp Cafe in Berlin for suggesting and participating in this project.