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Bastardi & Shafir (1998) show how too much data disabilitates your decision making. There is also the popular Paradox Of Choice argument.

However, I can't find a reference stating that, when faced with a decision, 2 options are better than 3 or many options. It makes sense--you either like one of the options less or more than the other, and can then come to a quicker conclusion.

Is my intuition correct? If so, Could someone please point me in the direction of a thesis or paper which shows that?

UPDATE

I just found this paper and will update my question (or answer it!) if I find an answer.

UPDATE 2

I realise that the converse can be true as well, especially in the scenario when obtaining something, like the latest tablet. For example, bias and culture could make it really easy for you to discount the vast majority of options (e.g. anything not made by Apple), but then you struggle to make the final decision (e.g. shall I get an iPad 64GB or an iPad 4G?).

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If you are comfortable with mathematical models of decision making then the models in this question will help you. As you noted in your question, what is more likely to matter is not the number of choices as much as the similarity of the choices (usually choosing between similar options takes longer than when one is clearly better). The number of choices doesn't necessarily have anything to do with how similar options are. In most real-life settings you're usually more likely to find similar options when given more choices and this would slow you. –  Artem Kaznatcheev Sep 13 '12 at 12:41
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What do you mean by better? Faster to choose, with higher utility (how defined?), causing less doubts during the choice, causing less doubts after the choice...? And, what is the 3rd option (better, worse, different) for 2 others? (Otherwise a great question, BTW.) –  Piotr Migdal Sep 13 '12 at 13:56

1 Answer 1

As Piotr mentions in the comments, you must operationalize "better".

Total time spent making a decision is likely to increase as the number of decision alternatives increase. This is known as Hick's Law.

If each choice has some objective value, then the maximum possible value that could be attained is likely to increase as the number of decision alternatives increase. This is probability.

The truth is not so clear cut. Each choice has some subjective value that is governed not only by its own intrinsic properties, but by comparison to other choices. Barry Shwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, will tell you that having other choices available to you can increase the experienced regret post-decision, which lowers the subjective value of the choices.

There's also a speed-accuracy trade-off. If a decision needs to be quick, as you say, there is some cost associated with time that needs to be subtracted from the value of the chosen option.

Overall, it would be too simplistic to say "2 choices are always better than one", or vice versa. The answer, as usual, is "it depends".

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