Jelly Choices - iStockPhoto.comColumbia Business Professor Sheena Iynengar conducted some interesting research on consumer choices. She studied how shoppers responded to a presentation of jams and jellies during the peak hours at a busy supermarket.

Given five jars to choose from, only 30% of the people stopped to look, but of those who stopped, 30% bought something.

By contrast, when there were twenty four jars to choose from, more than 60% of the shoppers stopped, but less than 3% purchased anything. In other words, people were six times more likely to purchase a jar of jam if they encountered five choices than if they encountered twenty-four choices.

Conclusion: Although people, especially Americans, are attracted to the idea of having more choices, we’re less likely to actually make a choice if we have too many of them.

To reinforce Iynengar’s research, psychologists David Myers and Robert Lane independently concluded that the current abundance of choice often leads to depression and feelings of loneliness.

Aside from the obvious retailing implications, how might this research be applied in other areas, like our health, finances, and spiritual lives? What is the threshold of choices beyond which we end up in some form of “decision paralysis?”

I think of friends, for example, who live in big cities full of outstanding restaurants who admit they rarely venture beyond a small circle of three or four eateries. Or think of the times you’ve stopped at your local video store and stared at the “new releases” section like a kid in a candy store trying to figure out what to rent.

“The presumption is, self-determination is a good thing and choice is essential to self-determination,” says Barry Schwartz, PhD, a Swarthmore College psychologist and author of “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less” (Ecco, 2004). “But there’s a point where all of this choice starts to be not only unproductive, but counterproductive – a source of pain, regret, worry about missed opportunities and unrealistically high expectations.”

Schwartz advises: “Study the options, then settle on something you feel good, if not perfectly, about… don’t compare your acquisitions to others’ and don’t wallow in regret – since, in the long run, people feel worse about inaction than action.”

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In light of these findings, here’s a bigger question to ponder: We live in a culture that attaches tremendous importance to personal autonomy. The more options we have, the better. From the time we were young, we’ve been told by parents, teachers, and coaches that we can be whatever we choose to be. The sky is the limit. If you can believe it and conceive it, you can achieve it. There are simply no limits to your options.

But is this the right message we should be taking away from the research findings? Are we putting undue stress on our children, for example, by exposing them to a world full of so many options? What about ourselves? As a Christian, I can’t help but think of Jesus’ strong advice in the Matthew’s gospel: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Could too many choices be limiting you? As counterculture as it is in our modern, western, radically individualistic society, what would embracing the idea of “less is more” mean to you… and to the quality of your life?