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The Case for The Social Sciences

In Sheena Iyengar’s work, she sought to test this last assumption directly through experiment. The stakes were high, for if she could show that this simplifying assumption was wrong, then, together with Herbert Simon’s earlier work undermining “perfect information,” the neoclassical model may be in jeopardy. Iyengar and her colleague Mark Lepper set up a controlled consumer choice experiment in a grocery store where shoppers were offered the chance to taste different kinds of jam. In the control condition, shoppers were offered twenty-four different choices. In the exerpimental condition, this was decreased to six options. To ensure that different shoppers were present for the two conditions, the displays were rotated every two hours and other scientific controls were put in place. Iyengar and Lepper sought to measure two things: (1) how many different flavors of jam the shoppers chose to taste and (2) how much total jam they actually bought wheen they checkout out of the store. To measure the latter, everyone who stopped by to taste was given a coded coupon, so that the experimenteres scould track whether the number of jams in the display affected later purchasing behavior. And did it ever. Even though the initial display of twenty-four jams attracted slightly more customer interest, their later purchasing behavior was quite low when measured against those who had visited the booth with only six jams. Although each display attraacted an equal number of jam tasters (thus removing the fact of tassting as a causal variable to explain the difference), the shoppers who had visited the display with twenty-four jams used their coupons only 3 percent of the time, whereas those who visited the display with only six jams used theirs 30 percent of the time.

What might account for this? In their analysis, Iyengar and Lepper speculated that the shoppers might have been overwhelmed in the first condition. Even when they tasted a few jams, this was such a small percentage of the total display that they perhaps felt they could not be sure they had chosen the best one, so they chose not to buy any at all. In the second condition, however, shoppers might have been better able to rationalize making a choice based on a proportionally larger sampling. As it turned out, people wanted fewer choices. Although they might not have realized it, their own behavior revealed a surprising fact about human motivation.

Although this may sound like a trivial experiment, the implications are far reaching. One of the most important direct applications of Iyengar and Lepper’s finding was to the problem of undersaving in 401k plans, where new employees are customarily overwhlemed by the number of options for investing their money and so choose to put off the decision, which effectively means choosing not to invest any money at all. In Respecting Truth, I have explored a number of other implications of this research ranging from automatic enrollment in retirement plans to the introduction of “target date” retirement funds. Not only is this good social science, but its positive impact on human lives has been considerable.