Thursday, March 05, 2009

Google, Twitter and the paradox of choice

The following is a true story. A friend of mine had booked a room in a Bed & Breakfast in order to attend some event or other. On arriving at the B&B the propriotor informed him that he had two rooms available and could choose the one he preferred. He then took my friend to view the rooms to better inform his decision. The first room was large and airy with nice decor and a good view of the garden. The second was considerably smaller and darker, the decor was somewhat careworn and the view was over the bins out the back. Assuming that the smaller room must be cheaper he asked the propriotor what the price difference was between the two rooms. He was told that both the rooms were the same price, £50 a night.

"But that's ridiculous" said my friend. "The first room is obviously much better than the second room, so what's wrong with it?"

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with the first room." Replied the owner. "Except that it has a wasp nest in the shower."

Americans to whom I have told this story take it as symptomatic of the kind of service offered in British hotels, but I want to make a different, more general, point. Simply having choice is largely unimportant, what matters in the quality of the items that you can choose between.

The British government is obsessed with choice and we constantly hear about providing parents and patients with increasingly large amounts of choice. Possibly because being given a choice makes people feel good, that there needs are somehow being considered. Possibly also because if it all goes belly up, you can blame the individual for choosing poorly. But there is a negative side to choice which transcends political conspiracy theories. Research shows that having more choice can decrease satisfaction with the item chosen (see, e.g. Barry Schwartz's book The Paradox of Choice published in 2004). Having a dizzying number of alternatives can also confuse a person to the extent that they fail to choose at all. This is particularly so if they have to decide among items that vary on more than one dimension. (This smart phone has 8 gigs of memory, but the battery life is poor and it doesn't sync with Outlook, this one syncs with outlook but has much less memory, this one has excellent battery life but has a poor screen and so on and so forth -- we've all been there.)

In this thought-provoking blog the author argues that Google's propensity to return several million hits when you type in a simple word such as "accountant" can likewise be deleterious. Surely, he argues, what we want are just a few hits but of high quality? I think so too, but how do you ensure quality? How do you remove irrelevant hits? Well you can do it yourself. Although 'accountant' returns in the order of 67 million hits, if I wanted an accountant I would presumably not want one in Azerbaijan (cos I live in West Yorkshire), typing "accountants leeds" (not in quotes) returns a smaller but still-large number of hits, 397,000. But this is irrelvant because there on the first page is a list of Leeds-based accountants, so I am unlikely to move on from there to view the remaining 396,990 items.

In fact I have tried more than once to replicate the 'choice is demotivating' effect for information choice (does choosing an article to read from a large initial set lead to people liking the article less than if it were a small choice set) and get null results all the time. Whether this is the way I'm doing it or whether it doesn't apply to information, I'm not sure.

There's one more wrinkle in the paradox of choice. Only some people find choice demotivating. Schwartz divides the world into two people maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers tend to want the best, satisficers (a term originally coined by the great H.A. Simon) are content to choose something that is 'good enough' to satisfy their goals. I hope you can immediately see how 'rational' satisficing is. Given a large enough set of items or a complex enough set of attributes a maximizer would quickly grind themselves into the ground weighing up the alternatives. If you take cognitive costs into account, maximizing is rather a foolish strategy. (I am reminded at this point Elliot, a patient studied by Antonio Damasio who following the removal of a tumour from near his frontal lobes would spend an afternoon at work deciding whether to classify his data by date or place, thinking through all the possible implication of both to decide on the optimal choice. This is clearly dysfunctional behaviour -- he soon lost his job -- so no one really maximizes all the time.)

The aforementioned blog also argues that Twitter could be a threat to Google. If people increasingly rely on Twitter for recommendations people might possibly be less likely to go and search for themselves on Google. Recommendations are a win-win situation in some regards. The recommendee saves time and effort by not conducting the search themselves which would seem to be a kind of free-riding strategy, were it not for the prestige and social status that can be achieved by a prolific recommender. And here comes another paradox. People tend to dramatically overrate the importance of single cases, especially if they are recounted by a trusted person. I had this recently when thinking about getting a new car. I wanted something reliable and looked at the various surveys to help to find something appropriate. I decided on an X (I'm not going to tell you what it was because it was a Volvo and apparently they're embarrasing) and told a friend about it. "Oh my dad had one of those and it was never out of the garage." So I crossed that off the list. But why? Why should one person's experience outweigh those of many thousands? I don't know, so it you have any ideas please let me know. (I will resist the temptation to give some kind of cod evolutionary explanation about us having evolved in groups without multivariate statistics, this might be the case but I would prefer to discount more interesting explanations).

So people might ultimately prefer Twitter and it might take away from Google (and particularly those horrible price comparison websites). But do people get better products and services (I wrote an earlier blog on the dangers of 'group think' that can arise in highly homophilous networks see also this paper)? How do you decide between the multiple conflicting opinions? And does any of this matter? Maybe we should pay the price of lower quality products for a less stressful and more collegiate  existence of mutual recommendation. 

By the way, my friend chose the smaller room.

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