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A literature review essay summarizes and analyzes past journal articles on choice overload.


          Decision-making, as one of the most common cognitive processes, involves the process of selecting one option from several possibilities (Eysenck & Keane, 2020). A popular misconception was that more choices will always bring greater satisfaction to the decision- makers because they are more likely to find a close match to their goals (Baumol & Ide, 1956; Hotelling, 1929, as cited in Chernev et al., 2015). However, having an excessive number of choices can result in the choice overload effect, which refers to the scenario in which the decision-maker faces an overwhelming decision problem result from an excessive number of choices (Simon, 1955; Toffler, 1970, as cited in Chernev et al., 2015). Iyengar and Lepper (2000) conducted three experiments to investigate if having too many choices is satisfying for the decision-makers or on the opposite, intensifying mental burden. In these three experiments, the researchers randomly assigned participants into two conditions, one with limited choices and another one with an extensive amount. For example, they offered participants either 6 or 24 flavors of jam at a grocery store and let them make a selection based on personal preferences. The study shows that participants are actually more inclined to exercise choice when choices were limited. Although choosers might enjoy the choice-making process when there is a large variety of options available, meanwhile they will also feel more responsible for the choice they make, thus resulting in more frustration and dissatisfaction with their decisions. In the study where they asked the participants to make a selection from an elaborate or limited assortment of chocolates, participants who had more choices reported being more dissatisfied and more regret about the choices they made compare with those with limited choices. In addition, carrying negative emotions toward the decision-making process might result in a lower willingness to engage and perceive the options to be less attractive (Gilovich & Medvec, 1995, as cited in Iyengar & Lepper, 2000). This research challenges the traditional idea that providing more choice is certainly bringing the customers higher motivation of making the decision, in this case, purchasing. More studies have proved that an excessive number of choices can irritate negative emotions such as frustration, overwhelm (Scheibehenne et al., 2010), regret, dissatisfaction (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000), and more. To understand the effect of choice overload and its impact on decision-makers’ cognitive state, many researchers have conducted studies to investigate the precondition, requirement, and consequence.

          However, not all overwhelming options create a choice overload for the decision-makers. According to Scheibehenne, Greifeneder, and Todd (2010), three preconditions must be met before the effect can be effective. Firstly, the decision-makers that must not have a clear prior preference of any of the options, or they can quickly locate their preferred item and pay less attention to the remaining ones. Secondly, all the choices have to be perceived as equivalent in terms of quality and values. With a few ones being outstandingly better than the other ones, decision-makers are more likely to make an optimal decision than feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. The last precondition is that, when people are less familiar with the choice set, they are more likely to feel overwhelmed. In other words, if the choosers are experts or extremely familiar with the options, they can more easily filter out the unwanted ones. With all three preconditions, decision-makers will be cognitively impaired in front of excessive choices and feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.

          Among all factors that moderate the effect of choice overload, assortment and categorization play an important role in assisting choosers to perceive all choices differently and bear the less cognitive burden (Diehl, 2005). Assortment refers to the format of breaking down all the options into a series of choices with fewer numbers at each time (Besedes et al., 2015) for better readability and less cognitive load (Chernev et al., 2015), especially when choosers are unfamiliar with the domain of choice (Diehl 2005; Diehl, Kornish, and Lynch 2003; Huff- man and Kahn 1998; Russo 1977, as cited in Scheibehenne et al., 2010). Categorization, as another important feature that moderates the impact of choice overload, refers to the process of grouping items by their attributes (Alba, Hutchinson, and Lynch 1991; Bettman 1979; Howard and Sheth 1969; Huber and Kline 1991; Johnson and Payne 1985; Nedungadi 1990; Roberts and Lattin 1991, as cited in Mogilner, et al., 2008). It serves the function of allowing the choosers to identify the similarities within the same category based on the most prominent traits of the item (Clark, 1985; Grice, 1975, as cited in Mogilner, et al., 2008). Using categorization, the decision-makers can refine their choices (Chakravarti and Janiszewski 2003; Diehl, Kornish, and Lynch 2003; Ratneshwar and Shocker 1991; Rosen 1978; Zhang and Fitz- simons 1999, as cited in Mogilner et al., 2008) by quickly locating to the category that their desired product with less cognitive burden throughout the process (Diehl, 2005). Many studies have shown that, using categorization and assortment can decrease the cognitive burden of making a choice and make it easier to navigate when the number is numerous (Diehl, 2005). This essay will break down the two factors into a more detailed explanation and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of some of the prominent studies.


          Chernev, Bockenholt, and Goodman (2015) pointed out multiple advantages of large assortments, such as customers are more likely to find a closer match to their desired goals (Baumol & Ide, 1956; Hotelling, 1929, as cited in Chernev et al., 2015). Assortment brings more freedom in choices (Kahn, Moore, & Glazer, 1987, as cited in Chernev et al., 2015), which encourages customers to make a selection, enhance the enjoyment of the shopping experience (Babin, Darden, & Griffin, 1994, as cited in Chernev et al., 2015), and upgrades the overall choice satisfaction (Botti & Iyengar, 2004, as cited in Chernev et al., 2015). In addition, they conducted a meta-analysis of 99 observations to identify the four key factors to predict whether, when, and how assortment is influencing choice overload. The four factors are the complexity of the choice set, decision task difficulty, preference uncertainty, and decision goal. The decision goal was measured as satisfaction rate or shorter time is taken to complete the process with less cognitive load (Chernev et al., 2015). They concluded that having a more difficult decision-making process, greater complexity in choices, and higher preference uncertainty can escalate the effect of choice overload.

          In their experiment, Besedes, Deck, Sarangi, and Shor (2015) built upon the concept of assortment and created a strategy called the sequential tournament to help choosers in decision-making. More specifically, the researchers proposed to chunk all the choices into smaller assortment then having the participants choose the best one out of each subgroup. In the end, participants need to gather all the previous choices together and make an ultimate decision. The sequential tournament is an effective and efficient strategy in many ways. With the format of breaking all the options down into a series of choices with fewer numbers at each time, assortment changes the perception of smaller choice sets without changing the actual number of choices available (Besedes et al., 2015). With a smaller number of choices each time, decision-makers are more likely to go over more choices while bear less cognitive strain than those who have no or less assortment (Besedes et al., 2015). Moreover, it avoids the effects of the status quo bias, in which people tend to maintain the same decision rather than changing them (Eysenck & Keane, 2020). With status quo bias, decision-makers are less likely to make optimal decisions by avoiding or paying less attention to the remaining options. However, the tournament-style selection process implicitly stimulates choosers to make a selection in each subgroup. Most importantly, participants reported that they experienced a higher satisfaction rate than those who had simultaneous choices (Read & Loewenstein, 1995).


          On the other hand, categorization can imply the attributes of the items grouped under the corresponding category (Alba, Hutchinson, and Lynch 1991; Bettman 1979; Howard and Sheth 1969; Huber and Kline 1991; Johnson and Payne 1985; Nedungadi 1990; Roberts and Lattin 1991, as cited in Mogilner, et al., 2008) that allows an easier searching process. Categorization is not only a cognitive process that aids the choosers in locating their desired products in a faster and easier way, but also is a perceptual process in which customers can infer the difference between this particular item from the other ones in a different category (Mogilner et al., 2008). It is shown that choosers are relatively more willing to choose options under different categories due to the fact that the difference is prominent. Whereas choosing from homogenous options makes the tradeoff between the options unclear and adds more sense of uncertainty (Festinger 1964; Tversky and Shafir 1992, Mogilner, et al., 2008). Therefore, the absence of categorization can result in a decreased sense of self-determination and lower satisfaction the choosers perceive, which reduces choosers’ enjoyment from the outcome (Deci & Ryan 1985; Ryan & Deci 2000, as cited in Mogilner, et al., 2008). The researchers also concluded that even when the labels do not provide any information regarding the category, categorization can still positively influence the satisfaction of the decision-makers, especially when they are unfamiliar with the choice domain (Mogilner, et al., 2008). With so many benefits, categorization is one of the most effective and common ways of reducing choice overload and providing a better browsing experience.


          The impact and level of choice overload can be hard to measure due to the fact that a lot of the behaviors and reactions cannot be measured and interpreted directly by the researchers. Most of the time researchers have to rely on participants’ self-report to estimate the level of influence and their emotional response. Chernev, Bockenholt, and Goodman (2015) conducted a study that focused on the negative impact of choice overload brought by a large number of alternative choices. They used two indicators to reflect the level of choice overload due to the fact that it cannot be measured directly. One indicator describes the subjective state of the decision-maker, participants’ internal states such as level of confidence, satisfaction, and regret. While another indicator observes the decision-maker’s behavior. Relying on self-report increases the chance of researcher bias and confirmation bias, which both interpret the result in a way that aligns with researchers’ expectations. In addition, this study did not examine the effect of positive versus negative emotions as a consequence of choice overload. Although it has briefly mentioned regret as one of the negative outcome emotions, the study overlooked other types of affective outcomes that are particularly associated with the use of assortment.

          Similar to most of the research, Iyengar & Lepper (2000) lacked differentiating the appropriate number of choices with an overwhelming amount. In the study in which they asked the participants to make a selection from an elaborate (24 flavors) or limited assortment (6 flavors) of chocolates, they should have provided a more detailed analysis of at what point customers felt satisfied with the large variety of choices and at what point they perceived the amount as overload. Concluding the study with more choices brought a higher likelihood of regret and dissatisfaction to the customers can be misleading to be interpreted as a large variety is always harmful and overwhelming. On the opposite, although an excessive large variety intensifies choosers’ mental burden, it also brings a higher level of enjoyment, satisfaction, and a bigger chance of finding the desired product.

          Studies concerning the impact of categorization on choice overload generally missed out on the discussion of an item that falls in multiple categories thus causes ambiguousness. A similar conversation has brought up in the book Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug (2014), where he argued that categories should be explicit and distinct so that no additional searching process and a higher likelihood of frustration will hinder a smooth browsing experience. When an item falls into several categories, users will run the risk of unable to find it in the first category and spend a longer time searching in the other ones. In this case, although categorization helps them narrowing down to a few particular categories, users are likely to have a high expectation to find the item in the first category, failing to do that might shorten their patience and stimulates the negative reactions in a faster way.


          Previous researches have examined the effect of choice overload and some possible factors that moderate the consequences. Among all the elements, assortment and categorizations play an important role in changing people’s perception of the excessive number of choices. in specific, assortment refers to the format of breaking down all the options into a series of choices with fewer numbers at each time (Besedes et al., 2015) and categorization organizes them by attributes and groups under the corresponding category (Alba, Hutchinson, and Lynch 1991; Bettman 1979; Howard and Sheth 1969; Huber and Kline 1991; Johnson and Payne 1985; Nedungadi 1990; Roberts and Lattin 1991, as cited in Mogilner, et al., 2008). The most prominent advantage of using assortment is that it changes the perception of smaller choice sets but remains the same total number of available choices, which reduces the mental burden and encourages choosers to browse longer (Besedes et al., 2015). Using categorization not only helps to narrow down to a particular range but also minimizes the tradeoff when choosing items from different categories (Festinger 1964; Tversky and Shafir 1992, Mogilner, et al., 2008). However, most of the studies failed to convey a more detailed explanation of how to access participants’ internal states beyond relying on self-reports. When researchers completed the task of assigning participants to a limited versus an elaborate number of choices, they ignored the discussion of what would be an optimal solution, such as a range of amounts that are perceived as appropriate. In the field of categorization, minimal studies discussed the limitation of an item belongs to multiple categories. Although the impact of choice overload and its consequences have been examined over decades, future researches still have many potential aspects they can investigate on. Researchers should be considering real-life applications and seeking an optimal solution for the web designers to resolve the choice overload effect.


Besedeš, T., Deck, C., Sarangi, S. and Shor, M. (2015). Reducing Choice Overload without Reducing Choices. Review of Economics and Statistics, 97(4), pp.793-802.

Chernev, A., Böckenholt, U., & Goodman, J. (2015). Choice overload: A conceptual review and meta-analysis. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 25(2), 333-358. doi: 10.1016/j.jcps.2014.08.002


Diehl, K. (2005). When two rights make a wrong: Searching too much in ordered environments. Journal of Marketing Research, 42(3), 313-322.

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


Krug, S. (2014). Don't make me think, revisited. (3rd ed.). Pearson Education.

Michael W. Eysenck & Mark T. Keane. (2020). Cognitive Psychology: A Student’s Handbook (8th ed.). Psychology Press.

Mogilner, Cassie, Rudnick, Tamar, & Iyengar, Sheena S. (2008). The Mere categorization effect: How the presence of categories increases choosers' perceptions of assortment variety and outcome satisfaction. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(August), 202–215.

Read, D., & Loewenstein, G. (1995). Diversification bias: Explaining the discrepancy in variety seeking between combined and separated choices. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 1(1), 34.


Scheibehenne, Benjamin, Todd, Peter M., & Greifeneder, Rainer (2010). Can there ever be too many options? A meta-analytic review of choice overload. Journal of Consumer Research, 37(October), pp. 408–425.

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