March 11, 2024

People actually like being told what to do

Here’s something that feels like it shouldn’t be the case: People like being told what to do.

We like being told what the best restaurants are, what we’re supposed to wear to an event, and which kitchen appliance is the best value. Just this Sunday, millions of people tuned in to the Oscars, in part to be told what movies were the best ones to watch.

Rick Steves, Fodors, and Lonely Planet sell truckloads of books telling us how to have the best vacation. Wirecutter, America’s Test Kitchen, and Consumer Reports employee armies of experts to tell us which induction range or skillet will result in the best-tasting dinner. Best-seller lists tell us which books are the most popular. Steam tells us which video games suck up the most hours. College rankings tell us which schools are for the best and brightest.

Today, we have more choices in all of these arenas than anybody ever has. A child can walk into any grocery store and have access to more options than any kings or emperors did just a century or two ago. With a few credit card points, you can fly to all the corners of the world on a whim. It’s an endless bounty of possibilities.

But these choices come at a cost.

On one hand, we just don’t have the time to sift through this sea of endless options. Rigorously evaluating every skillet on the market for ourselves would take days or weeks, so outsourcing this testing is awfully appealing. Indeed, Wirecutter spent 90 hours testing skillets to come up with their recommended pick – an All-Clad if you’re curious.

And then we’re often less happy with our choice when we have all these options. In a town with two restaurants, when we choose to go get pizza, we’re just “giving up” the chance to get a burger. But in a city with more dining options, now we’re having that pizza at the psychological expense of having burgers, dumplings, steak, pasta, tacos, and everything else. In our minds, the opportunity cost of pizza is now far higher.

So, as a result, we find that limiting choices can make everybody better off. Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper famously wrote about this in a 2001 paper titled “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” In experiments where customers were offered samples of jams and chocolates, or where students were tasked to choose an essay topic, the researchers found that limiting the number of options paid dividends. They wrote:

These experiments, which were conducted in both field and laboratory settings, show that people are more likely to purchase gourmet jams or chocolates or to undertake optional class essay assignments when offered a limited array of 6 choices rather than a more extensive array of 24 or 30 choices. Moreover, participants actually reported greater subsequent satisfaction with their selections and wrote better essays when their original set of options had been limited.

In my own life, I distinctly remember this coming into play the first time I visited Rome with my mother. After settling into our Airbnb, I remember making fun of her bulky Rick Steves-branded guidebook as I sat back to plan our day on my iPad. But within seconds, I was hit by a tidal wave of possibly. There were a million restaurants and a thousand museums. TripAdvisor had page after page of listings and Google Maps was full of pins. I was frozen.

But then I looked at that blue and gold book and cracked it open to a page titled “Rome first-timer’s walk,” which told me exactly what to do. Step by step, turn by turn, gelato spot by gelato spot, the burden of infinite choice was lifted. I was told what to do, and as a result, we had a great day.

Before we go too far with this, a warning: While we love a recommendation, we hate having somebody tell us what we must do. When we feel scared that our choices are being removed, this triggers something known as psychological reactance – a sharp and animating resistance that’s the basis of reverse psychology in propaganda, parenting, and everything in between. Dictates backfire, and recommendations work.

Mad Men’s Don Draper once quipped, “People want to be told what to do so badly that they’ll listen to anyone.” Most often, we want to have a great day on our vacation or get a skillet that’s easy to use – we don’t want to do all the homework that comes with those decisions.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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