Motivation and emotion/Book/2023/Overchoice and motivation

Overchoice and motivation:
What is the overchoice effect, why does it occur, and who are most susceptible to it?


Figure 1. Excess choice can be overwhelming
Have you ever...

Have you ever been in a situation where you needed to make a choice but there were so many options you just couldn’t decide? Maybe you were picking a topic for a school assignment, or what movie to watch, or which career path to take? Choices are everywhere, and when you have too many options, it can become overwhelming and produce unwanted consequences. This is known as the overchoice effect (Scheibehenne et al., 2010; see Figure 1).

The overchoice effect is an important area of research in motivational psychology, as excessive options can disrupt people’s ability to make decisions – costing them time, energy, and ultimately reducing their satisfaction with their choices (Chernev et al., 2015). Since decision-making is a fundamental part of human behaviour, research on the effects of assortment size on motivation has extensive practical applicability, especially in marketing and educational contexts (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000). This chapter uses psychological science to explore key aspects of the overchoice effect – including the defining features of the overchoice effect, the mechanisms behind this phenomenon, and how personal characteristics can increase people’s susceptibility to its effects.

Focus questions
  • What is the overchoice effect?
  • Why does the overchoice effect occur?
  • Who is most susceptible to the overchoice effect?

What is the overchoice effect?


The term, overchoice was first coined by Alvin Toffler in the 1970s; it was used to predict a future in which an abundance of choice would prevent people from making optimal decisions (Gourville & Soman, 2005).The overchoice effect (also known as choice overload), describes a phenomenon in which people experience various negative consequences, such as demotivation and decreased choice satisfaction, when they are required to choose from many options (Scheibehenne et al., 2010). Whilst the presence of a large choice set is a necessary precondition of the overchoice effect, more choices does not necessarily mean negative effects are inevitable (Scheibehenne et al., 2010). In fact, perceived choice deprivation is a more reliable predictor of decreased choice satisfaction than perceived choice excess (Reutskaja et al., 2022). Based on previous research, Chernev et al. (2015) developed a conceptual model of choice overload, which explains that the effect of assortment size on the overchoice effect is moderated by characteristics of both decisions (extrinsic factors) and decision makers (intrinsic factors). That is, certain factors related to a choice can increase or decrease the extent to which overchoice produces negative emotional and behavioural consequences[grammar?]. These factors are presented in Table 1.

Table 1

Antecedent Factors of Choice Overload

Antecedent factor Description
Decision task difficulty Factors which make choices more effortful and taxing (e.g., time constraints, decision accountability, presentation format).
Choice set complexity How the features of the options within a choice set are related to each other (e.g., a lack of differentiation between options).
Preference uncertainty Extent to which decision makers have preferences and feel knowledgeable about the choice being made.
Decision goal The level of cognitive effort involved in the decision-making process (e.g., intention to make a decision, rather than just browse options).

Note. Adapted from Chernev et al. (2015)

Intrinsic motivation


Many dominant perspectives in psychology subscribe to the idea that providing choice is essential for promoting intrinsic motivation, a person’s motivation to engage in behaviours solely because they find it enjoyable (Patall et al., 2008). According to self-determination theory, the basic human needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy lay the foundations for intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Since choice allows for greater autonomy, it may be considered that more choices would increase intrinsic motivation. However, the overchoice effect contradicts this assumption.

In a famous study of overchoice by Iyengar and Lepper (2000), students were presented with a list of either six or 30 essay topics for an extra credit assessment. It was found that students in the limited-choice condition were more likely to successfully choose a topic and complete the essay. These students also received, on average, higher essay marks than those who selected their topic from an extensive list. Since all students were informed that their essay would not be graded, the higher quality of essays produced by the limited-choice group was suggested to reflect higher intrinsic motivation. These findings demonstrate that excessive choice may have demotivating effects. Although, since the study did not include a medium-size choice condition, it is not clear whether overchoice decreased intrinsic motivation or if limited choice increased intrinsic motivation.

Decision paralysis


Overchoice may also result in decision paralysis, a phenomenon in which decision makers experience impaired or inhibited decision-making (Manolică et al., 2021). This concept is similar to what Chernev et al. (2015) describes as choice deferral, which is when people postpone making a decision. Decision makers may struggle to commit to a choice when choosing among many options, due to factors such as overthinking (Manolică et al., 2021). This can cause people to become stuck or "paralysed" in the decision-making process. In one of Iyengar and Lepper’s (2000) experiments, it was found that whilst shoppers were more likely to approach a tasting table with an extensive array of jams, only 3% of those shoppers actually purchased a jam, whereas 30% of shoppers who had viewed a limited selection proceeded to purchase a jam. This shows that whilst a large assortment of options may initially entice decision makers and motivate them to approach a choice, it ultimately hinders their motivation to make a final decision, resulting in no decision being made.

Overchoice in online dating

Figure 2. The overchoice effect can even occur in online dating

Most research on overchoice has focused on decision-making in typical consumer contexts, with items such as jams, chocolates, birthday cards, and cleaning supplies (Dar-Nimrod et al., 2009; Diehl & Poyner, 2010; Iyengar & Lepper, 2000). Whilst these studies have advanced our knowledge of the choice overload phenomenon, it should be noted that decision-making affects people in various aspects of their lives, not just how they behave as consumers. As such, the overchoice effect is applicable to many different settings, including overchoice in online dating (see Figure 2).

In a recent study, Thomas et al. (2022) tested the effects of overchoice on dating apps by asking participants to evaluate fake dating profiles. Participants first completed partner-matching questions, then were informed of the number of matches they received. This was manipulated experimentally between groups, including a low, moderate, and high number of matches. Results showed that as dating app users’ perceptions of a high number of potential partners increased, so did their fears of being single. The researchers suggested that when people are overwhelmed by excessive choice, it becomes harder to evaluate options and increases the expectation of being able to find a suitable partner – which, when unmet, may induce fears of being single.

Mini case study

Francis adopted a pet dog six months ago and is still struggling to decide what to name it. Whenever Francis thinks they are ready to commit to a name, they start to worry that there might be better alternative options, and ends up not being able to decide at all.

Which of these concepts best captures what Francis is experiencing?

Expectation disconfirmation
Decision paralysis
Intrinsic motivation

Why does the overchoice effect occur?


So far, this chapter has touched on the antecedent factors of the overchoice effect and briefly discussed how researchers have studied this phenomenon. Considering people encounter many types of decisions that occur in vastly different domains of life, how can psychological science construct an all-encompassing explanation of why the overchoice effect occurs? Rather than offering a single explanation, researchers have proposed several potential mechanisms for the overchoice effect. Understanding why the overchoice effect occurs is valuable, as it may provide useful insight into ways of mitigating its effects.

Expectation disconfirmation


One indication of choice overload is experiencing dissatisfaction with the choice (Chernev et al., 2015). The experience of perceiving an unwanted discrepancy between expectations and reality is known as negative expectation disconfirmation (Diehl & Poyner, 2010). Experimental studies of overchoice have shown that extensive choice sets can lead to more negative expectation disconfirmation, such that decision makers who believe a product has been selected from a large rather than small assortment, set high initial expectations and end up dissatisfied (Diehl & Poyner, 2010). When options are extensive, people may set unrealistically high expectations about being able to achieve a desired outcome, which ultimately increases their chances of experiencing disappointment (Grant & Schwartz, 2011). These findings suggest that decision makers in overchoice situations may benefit from setting realistic or even low expectations which are likely to be met or exceeded.

Increased cognitive costs

Figure 3. Overchoice is costly to mental energy

Another mechanism which may explain the overchoice effect is increased cognitive costs. Having too many options to select from means more cognitive resources and mental energy is required to compare the different options (see Figure 3). This is a type of information overload, which can make the decision-making process more onerous and demotivate people from making a choice (Scheibehenne et al., 2010). Cognitive costs may therefore explain why overchoice can result in outcomes such as decision paralysis and choice deferral.

Referring back to self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000), whilst choices may increase autonomy, the cognitive resources required to make decisions in overchoice settings could undermine people's psychological need for competence. For example, excessive choices may make people feel like they do not have the mental energy or the expertise to make an informed decision, thus hindering their intrinsic motivation. In terms of addressing this problem, decision makers could try to reduce cognitive resource costs in overchoice situations by setting boundaries on how much time and effort they spend comparing different options.

Anticipated regret


Researchers have hypothesised that people experience the overchoice effect due to a fear of future regret (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000). As options increase, so does the potential for decision makers to engage in counterfactual thinking and dwell on “what ifs” after making their choice (Grant & Schwartz, 2011). Indeed, studies show that decision makers who select from extensive assortments tend to experience more regret about their choices compared to those who select from limited assortments (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000). Regret can also impact the decision-making process. For example, Gourville and Soman (2005) found that consumers were more likely to make a choice from a larger assortment if they were informed that their purchase was refundable. This demonstrates that reversibility of choice may mitigate the overchoice effect, as it reduces the potential for later regret. Based on these findings, decision makers may be able to better navigate overchoice by making room for potential future regret. For example, consumers could select products with a flexible return policy or a trial period.

The inverted U and brain activity


A study by Shah and Wolford (2007) suggested that the overchoice effect follows an inverted U shape. Their study found that whilst purchasing-behaviour increased with the number of options, this peaked at a moderate assortment size and began to decline again once the optimal selection size was surpassed. The mechanism behind this pattern of behaviour has been explored from a physiological perspective. For example, activity in the left striatum and right anterior cingulate cortex – structures involved in motivating decision-making behaviour, appears highest when participants select from a moderate-size choice set and lower when participants select from limited or extensive choice sets (Reutskaja et al., 2018) . This suggests an optimal level of choice facilitates behaviour by activating brain areas which motivate decision-making. It also illustrates that brain activity in extensive-choice conditions are similar to those observed in conditions of limited choice. Taken together, these findings show that whilst too many options can negatively impact decision-making motivation, it is ill-advised to offer too few options.

Mini case study

Ollie goes to a large book store to find the perfect book to read. After choosing what he believed to be the "best" option, he discovers the book is not interesting, and feels disappointed as a result.

Which of these concepts best captures what Ollie is experiencing?

Decision paralysis
Cognitive resource costs
Negative expectation disconfirmation

Who is most susceptible to the overchoice effect?


The intensity of choice overload is influenced by individual differences and factors related to the decision maker (Chernev et al., 2015). A perceived excess of choice also appears to have varying effects on choice satisfaction across different countries, such that in some countries (e.g., Japan), excess choice actually has a positive effect on choice satisfaction (Reutskaja et al., 2022). In other words, overchoice does not affect everyone in the same way.

Lack of familiarity

Figure 4. Those who are unfamiliar with a choice domain are more likely to be overwhelmed by large assortment sizes

One personal factor which may make someone more susceptible to the overchoice effect is preference uncertainty, which is a lack of prior preferences and expertise (Chernev et al., 2015). When a person is unfamiliar with a decision area, more cognitive resources are required to evaluate different options. Anticipating these time and energy costs may impair or demotivate decision-making all together (Scheibehenne et al., 2010). In a study by Beneke (2015), a sample of participants from South Africa were asked to select a wine from an online store. This was manipulated between groups, so that participants selected from either a large or reduced assortment. The results showed that assortment satisfaction did not differ between the two choice sets for consumers who felt highly familiar with wine. However, those with less familiarity experienced lower assortment satisfaction and higher perceived assortment costs (e.g., processing time, overwhelm, confusion) when the choice set was large (see Figure 4). Based on these findings, decision makers who are unfamiliar with the decision domain may be able to better navigate overchoice by consulting someone with more expertise.

Decision-making orientation


Overchoice may also affect people differently based on their decision-making orientation. For example, according to regulatory focus theory, people’s decisions are driven by either a promotion orientation – characterised by a sensitivity to positive outcomes, or a prevention orientation – characterised by a sensitivity to negative outcomes (Polman, 2012). Theoretically, those who are prevention-oriented would be more vulnerable to the overchoice effect, because a larger choice set is likely to contain more unsatisfactory options; whereas promotion-oriented people would benefit from having more choices, as that would increase their chances of finding a suitable option (Polman, 2012).

A study by Polman (2012) revealed that when participants were making a decision for themselves, they tended to report a prevention focus and were more likely to experience choice overload. However, this effect was reversed when participants were asked to make a decision for someone else, such that they tended to report a promotion focus and were more likely to be satisfied with a larger choice set. Interestingly, the study found that this reversed effect in proxy decision makers was absent when the decision makers were induced to feel accountable for their choices, presumably because it activated a prevention-focused orientation. Overall, this study demonstrates that large choice sets are more likely to negatively affect decision makers who feel a sense of accountability for their choices – whether they are making a decision for themselves or someone else, due to a heightened sensitivity to potential negative outcomes.

Maximisers vs satisficers


Similar to decision-making orientation, the effects of overchoice can also differ based on whether people adopt a maximising or satisficing decision-making strategy. Maximisers are motivated to get the most out of their choice, often spending considerable effort comparing options in search of the best one (Schwartz et al., 2002). Satisficers, however, make decisions based on what is “good enough”, without expending additional effort to go beyond an acceptable standard (Schwartz et al., 2002). The ‘maximisation paradox’ explains that those with maximising tendencies are more likely to sacrifice resources such as time and energy to increase their choice set, which ultimately results in higher choice dissatisfaction (Dar-Nimrod et al., 2009).

This concept was illustrated in a study by Dar-Nimrod et al. (2009), which found that maximisers were more willing to give up their time (by completing an additional survey) to obtain a larger array of choices, compared to satisficers. The study also found that maximisers who selected from the larger array were less satisfied with their choice, compared to maximisers who selected from a smaller selection. Furthermore, choice satisfaction did not differ between selection sizes for satisficers. This may be because satisficers tend to minimise search costs by spending less effort searching different options within an extensive choice set (Reed et al., 2011). In terms of practical application, those who struggle with maximising tendencies could try to adopt a satisficing approach when evaluating options and avoid seeking out large selection sizes.

;Mini case study

Jen has recently started online dating. She spends a considerable amount of time swiping through profiles to try to find the perfect partner. She wants to make sure she has carefully evaluated all her options before deciding who to go on a date with.

1 What decision-making strategy does Jen seem to be using?

Proxy decision making

2 Based on research on the overchoice effect, what is one way Jen might be able to reduce the negative effects of overchoice?

Spend more time swiping through profiles
Sign up to other dating apps to increase her options
Try to limit the number of profiles she swipes through



The overchoice effect is a widely occurring psychological phenomenon in which excessive choice undermines intrinsic motivation (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000) and inhibits decision-making (Manolică et al., 2021). Overchoice can be observed in various contexts – including in consumer behaviour, education, and online dating. However, it is important to remember that increased choice does not guarantee negative outcomes, and choice deprivation also has undesirable consequences (Reutsakaja et al., 2022). Mechanisms underlying the overchoice effect include expectation disconfirmation (Diehl & Poyner, 2010), increased cognitive costs (Scheibehenne et al., 2010), anticipated regret (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000), and reduced activation in brain areas that motivate decision-making (Reutskaja et al., 2018). People who are most susceptible to the overchoice effect include those who lack familiarity with the choice (Beneke, 2015), feel accountable for their decisions (Polman, 2012), and seek to find the “best” option (Dar-Nimrod et al., 2009).

A key message to take from the overchoice effect is that "more" is not always better. When people seek out more choices, they may unintentionally be making it harder for themselves to come to a satisfactory decision. However, decision makers can take comfort in knowing the overchoice effect is not inevitable. By understanding why this phenomenon occurs and who are most affected, it may be possible to mitigate its effects. Presented below is a summary of the practical recommendations that psychological science has to offer regarding the overchoice effect.

Recommendations for decision makers
  • Set realistic expectations (Diehl & Poyner, 2010)
  • Minimise cognitive costs by reducing the time and energy spent making decisions (Scheibehenne et al., 2010)
  • Select choices that are reversible (Lepper & Iyengar, 2000)
  • Adopt a satisficing approach by settling for a “good enough” option (Dar-Nimrod et al., 2009)
  • Increase familiarity with the choice domain (Beneke, 2015)

See also



Beneke, J. (2015). Are consumers really bewildered by overchoice? An experimental approach to the tyranny of “too much”. Journal of Food Products Marketing, 21(1), 90–101.

Chernev, A., Böckenholt, U., & Goodman, J. (2015). Choice overload: A conceptual review and meta-analysis. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 25(2), 333–358.

Dar-Nimrod, I., Rawn, C. D., Lehman, D. R., & Schwartz, B. (2009). The maximization paradox: The costs of seeking alternatives. Personality and Individual Differences, 46(5), 631–635.

Diehl, K, & Poyner, C. (2010). Great expectations?! Assortment size, expectations, and satisfaction. Journal of Marketing Research, 47(2), 313–322.

Grant, A. M., & Schwartz, B. (2011). Too much of a good thing: The challenge and opportunity of the inverted U. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(1), 61–76.

Gourville, J. T., & Soman, D. (2005). Overchoice and assortment type: When and why variety backfires. Marketing Science (Providence, R.I.), 24(3), 382–395.

Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 995–1006.

Manolică, A., Guță, A-S., Roman, T., & Dragăn, L. M. (2021). Is consumer overchoice a reason for decision paralysis? Sustainability (Basel, Switzerland), 13(11), 5920.

Patall, E. A., Cooper, H., & Robinson, J. C. (2008). The effects of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes: A meta-analysis or research findings. Psychological Bulletin, 13(2), 270–300.

Polman, E. (2012). Effects of self-other decision making on regulatory focus and choice overload. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(5), 980–993.

Reed, D. D., Reed, F. D. D., Chok, J., & Brozyna, G. A. (2011). The “tyranny of choice”: Choice overload as a possible instance of effort discounting. The Psychological Record, 61(4), 547–560.

Reutskaja, E., Cheek, N. N., Iyengar, S., & Schwartz, B. (2022). Choice deprivation, choice overload, and satisfaction with choices across six nations. Journal of International Marketing (East Lansing, Mich.), 30(3), 18–34.

Reutskaja, E., Lindner, Nagel, R., Andersen, R. A., & Camerer, C.F. (2018). Choice overload reduces neural signatures of choice set value in dorsal striatum and anterior cingulate cortex. Nature Human Behaviour, 2(12), 925–935.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. The American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.

Scheibehenne, B., Greifeneder, R., & Todd, P. M. (2010). Can there ever be too many options? A meta-analytic review of choice overload. Journal of Consumer Research, 37(3), 409–425.

Schwartz, B., Ward, A., Monterosso, J., Lyubomirsky, S., White, K., Lehman, D. R., & Diener, E. (2002). Maximizing versus satisficing: Happiness is a matter of choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(5), 1178–1197.

Shah, A. M., & Wolford, G. (2007). Buying behavior as a function of parametric variation of number of choices. Psychological Science, 18(5), 369–370.

Thomas, M. F., Binder, A., & Matthes, J. (2022). The agony of partner choice: The effect of excessive partner availability on fear of being single, self-esteem, and partner choice overload. Computers in Human Behaviour, 126, 106977.