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This is some basic, sample markdown. Picture yourself at the supermarket. You’re in the confectionary isle and standing before is the selection of chocolates. Dark chocolate, 70% cacao, unsweetened, gluten free, strawberry flavoured, caramel, unsalted, vegan friendly, paleo friendly, white chocolate; the list goes on. After a few minutes of pondering over the range of choices available, you decide to choose the chocolate with strawberry filling. As you place the item and head to the checkout, you start to think:

Was that really the best choice? I kind of feel like dark chocolate, but I had that last week. I’ve been dying to try the new cookies ‘n cream flavour though. And the new commercial they aired for it was hilarious! With the panda and everything! Gosh, I wish I chose that. I bet that’s what the panda would have chosen, he always has good ideas.

The paradox of choice explained

What you’re witnessing here is an interesting case of buyer’s remorse. Not because they bought something overly lavish or expensive, but because they wish they had bought something else instead. It’s the overwhelming sensation of having too many options and then contemplating your decision afterwards.

Popularized by American psychologist Barry Schwartz, but conceptualized by Polish psychiatrist Zbigniew J. Lipowski in 1970 (and then revived by psychologist Sheena Iyengar decades later), this is what has become known as the Paradox of Choice. Schwartz’s analysis on consumer attitude towards choice brought mainstream attention to the dangers of information overload, citing the anxiety inducing effects of deciding between multitudes of different products on the market.

Without getting into too much detail behind this theory (and some of counter-studies that have begun to arise ), there is sufficient evidence to suggest that giving people too many choices can have a negative effect on their decision-making, resulting in increased anxiety and greater dissatisfaction afterwards.

Now think back to the supermarket scenario and imagine what would happen if it was one of your surveys. However, instead of simply moving on with their decision, imagine they had several questions left and decided to quit the survey altogether! This is the danger of giving people too many choices and it’s important to understand how to avoid it.

Putting choices into your survey

When creating a survey, you will understandably have a range of business goals you wish to achieve, along with certain information that you want to acquire. With so much data that needs to be collected, it’s always important to have a firm grasp on the business goals and decide whether each question is relevant to those goals. This also relates to how many choices you give with each question; give too many and people may feel overwhelmed, offer too little and it may not cut-off segments of your audience. Finding the right balance between the two can be difficult to achieve, but with enough pilot testing and feedback, it can be done.

Below are some useful tips on how to avoid placing too many choices in your survey.

  • The Open Text Option: Often seen as ‘Other’ in a survey, this gives participants the opportunity to write in a custom response that isn’t available in the prescribed list of choices. This is a common placeholder for when too many options are possible, so this removes the hassle of listing every single one of them.

  • Impose a Limit on Multiple Choice Questions: This greatly depends on the context of the question (eg people are expected to see a lot of possible options for basic questions like language and location), but with most questions, it’s important to focus on less rather than more. There is no definitive number for deciding what’s reasonable, however, a choice of 3 -5 possible options is a good rule of thumb to follow. If that’s not enough, then the previously mentioned ‘Other’ text box can solve this problem.

  • Offer Multiple Answer Choices: If your survey participants find certain questions difficult to answer, it may be because there’s too much pressure on choosing one option. In a scenario where similarly valued options are available to people, the pressure on choosing the right one greatly increases . To alleviate this, consider the possibility of allowing multiple responses within one question, in order to reduce this burden. This of course should only be executed if there’s a problem in the first place (your feedback will tell you this), and if it doesn’t tamper with the data results.


There is strong evidence to suggest that too many choices can have a negative impact on people’s choices, resulting in decisions being made in anxiety-inducing situations, which may not accurately represent the data you receive. By removing irrelevant information and offering a system that reinforces positive decision making, it’s possible to achieve results that clearly reflects the thoughts and ideas of your target audience.

Øyvind's avatar
Øyvind Forsbak
As CTO and co-founder of Orient Software, Øyvind Forsbak oversees all of our organization’s technical matters. Since Orient Software's founding in 2005, Øyvind has guided the company's choices of technology to become a world class developer in .NET and modern JavaScript frameworks.
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