Although 20th-century architect Mies Van Der Rohe was initially responsible for working the mantra “less is more," the phrase eventually escaped the confines of design and has been adopted for everything from decluttering businesses to mobile phone ads. Even the consumer psychology set grabbed on to it, most notably when an economic study found that overwhelming consumers with choices was detrimental to sales. Albeit, they flipped it around to “more is less.”

Known as the “paradox of choice,” the more-is-less theory in consumer psychology was born when researchers presented a selection of jams and enticed shoppers to buy a jar. In one scenario, six jams were presented for the shoppers to choose from; in another, 24 varieties were offered. The larger display attracted more shoppers, but the smaller selection led to 10 times more purchases.

The theory was cemented with psychologist Barry Schwartz’ 2004 book, “The Paradox of Choice - Why More Is Less.” In the book, Schwartz argues that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers; and this has been the widely held theory for some time now.

But is it true?

Skeptics have tinkered with the theory and in 2009, Tim Hartford took the bull by the horns in an article published by the Financial Times. He reported on a team of psychologists and economists who attempted, and failed, to replicate the jam experiment. He noted, “it is hard to find much evidence that retailers are ferociously simplifying their offerings in an effort to boost sales. Starbucks boasts about its “87,000 drink combinations;” supermarkets are packed with options. This suggests that “choice demotivates” is not a universal human truth, but an effect that emerges under special circumstances.”

More recently, The Atlantic raised the issue again when reporting on a new article by Daniel Mochon about "single-option aversion." Mochon’s take, published in the Journal of Consumer Behavior, looks at another side altogether: What happens when shoppers aren’t offered any choice?

The Williams-Sonoma bread maker

Where the paradox of choice theory says that too many options are overwhelming, Mochon suggests that when consumers have no choice at all – a take-it-or-leave it scenario – they will leave it. This concept was illustrated by a marketing strategy employed by retailer Williams-Sonoma. They offered one bread machine that had very flat sales. They added a much more expensive one, and suddenly, sales for the moderately-priced took off. Mochon suggests that being presented with similar-but-different items makes us more certain about our final choice.

"This research suggests that stores should be mindful of offering too few options," Mochon said. "Even if consumers can find an option that they like, they may be unwilling to purchase it without considering other similar options first."

As The Atlantic article concludes, “Sometimes, choices can paralyze us with anxiety and exhaust us. But sometimes, choices reduce anxiety by making us feel like we've searched exhaustively – and now we're ready to buy.”

In the end, with all of these theories to choose from, it's hard to know which one is the right choice.

Derek Thompson from The Atlantic explains it all in the video below:

Related stories on MNN:

Are too many choices a bad thing?
In consumer psychology, the 'paradox of choice' theory holds that too many options can hamper shoppers’ decision-making.