Investigating the Role of Counterfactual Thinking in the Excess Choice Effect
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According to economic rational choice theory greater choice will deliver well-being by increasing the likelihood that individuals satisfy personal preferences (Mas-Colell, Whinston, & Green, 1995). Consequently, extensive choice has become a fundamental aspect of both consumer markets and public policy (Schwartz, 2000; 2004; Botti & Iyengar, 2006). Crucially however, recent psychological research has begun to challenge the assumption that more choice leads to greater well-being. In several instances evidence has been found that whilst some choice is good, more choice can lead to reduced post-decisional satisfaction (e.g. Iyengar & Lepper, 2000; Shar & Wolford, 2007; Reutskaja & Hogarth, 2009). This is referred to as the Excess Choice Effect (ECE). If widespread, this ECE may mean that policies aimed at increasing well-being via choice actually deliver the opposite of their objectives. Although subject to much theoretical speculation, surprisingly little is known about the underlying cause of this effect. In light of this lacuna, the main aim of the current thesis was to investigate an alternative explanation for the ECE – namely, increased counterfactual thought. Across 7 experiments various factors known to influence the availability of counterfactual thoughts were manipulated, and the impact upon the prevalence of the ECE was explored, whilst another experiment (Experiment 7) aimed to determine individuals’ predicted affective responses to extensive choice. Overall, evidence was found that counterfactual thinking appears to play an important role in driving the dissatisfaction often associated with extensive choice. Specifically, the ECE was found to be most prevalent where counterfactual alternatives were made readily available, for example when under low cognitive load, when reflecting upon a recent, real-life decision, and when choice outcomes were negative. Further, in Experiment’s 1, 5, 6, and 8 these ECE’s were found to be significantly mediated by increased counterfactual thought, or the heightened experience of counterfactual emotion, following extensive choice. No evidence for any impact of choice level upon (psychological) satisfaction levels was found when the capacity to think counterfactually was reduced, i.e. via high cognitive load, over time, when reflecting upon a hypothetical scenario, or following a positive choice outcome. Ideas for future research are considered, and the potential implications of these findings for our theoretical understanding of the ECE, for the psychology of choice, for consumer well-being, retailers and the construction of public policy are discussed.
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