There is a fundamental misconception rooted in the collective psyche of Americans that more choices are better. What is particularly confusing about this phenomenon is that nearly everyone has direct personal experience that refutes the idea. Recently I had to seek out a new bag to hold my laptop for when my backpack wasn't appropriately formal. I was confronted with a dizzying array of choices. Even after establishing relatively rigorous guidelines I still had to choose between several dozen very nice bags. Any of them would have been perfectly suitable and yet I spent hours choosing between them. Was I better off having spent all this time selecting between options that were fundamentally the same in terms of function and personal utility? Not especially.
Recent research suggests that had I been choosing a bag to receive a year from now I might have found the decision quite a bit easier to make. The ideas of Joseph Goodman and Selin Malkoc propose that as distance (both temporal and geographic) increases from a decision a person's preference for more choices diminishes. In other words the sooner you have to make a decision the more options you are likely to desire.
The main idea behind Goodman's research is that the further removed from an individual a decision is the more abstractly the individual thinks about the decision. For example, when planning an evening out an individual might want to see a movie and get some dinner and dessert. As the movie ends the individual may begin thinking that some cheesecake would be a great way to end the evening. Finally, when the waiter comes to ask what they would like the individual might settle on a raspberry chocolate cheesecake slice. At each of these stages it's likely the individual's desire for more options increases.
Goodman and Malkoc created several simple experiments to test their ideas. The first experiment involved two treatment groups. The first group selected a free entree coupon for two restaurants they were told were opening the next day. Restaurant A had a menu approximately twice the size of restaurant B. In this treatment group participants selected the restaurant with the larger menu 63% of the time. Conditions were the same in the second treatment group with the exception that participants were told the restaurants were opening in six months. Participants in this group chose the restaurant with the smaller menu size the majority of the time (54%).
In the second experiment participants were asked to imagine two ice cream shops that were either in their town or in a far away location. Once ice cream shop had six flavors while the other carried eighteen. Participants then selected which ice cream shop they preferred. When participants imagined the ice cream shop in their town they selected the shop with more flavors 85% more than when they imagined the far away shop.
These two experiments demonstrate very simply Goodman and Malkoc's ideas of how temporal and geographic proximity influence the desire for number of options. However, now that the effect has been demonstrated the question of mechanism must be answered. It seems likely that as choices are more psychologically distant options seem more substitutable. After all, at noon anything sweet after dinner will do for dessert. However, when that dessert cart comes rolling around the berry parfait seems very different from the raspberry cheesecake. Similarly, when planning to furnish a new home six months from now plans might include a coffee table. At that point all coffee tables may seem more or less the same. Yet when it comes time to make a purchase every small detail from height to surface type is a make or break proposition.
An alternative theory regarding the mechanism of action is that participants simply do not care about decisions which are significantly removed by time or geography. Therefore they select their preference for more or less options in a more random manner. The researchers conducted further experiments similar to the ones discussed above but including measures of participant involvement. In each case participants were found to be equally invested in both proximal and distal scenarios and still favoring more choices in proximal scenarios compared to distant scenarios.
The end results seem relatively conclusive. Individuals simply desire more options the more immediately they must make a decision. If you'd like to read about the experiments in more depth Goodman and Malkoc's work can be found in the Journal of Consumer Research as well as online.