More can be… more

“Less is more”. It’s a frustrating phrase. Less is not not more; by definition, it never can be. But sometimes less is better. On the other hand, sometimes more is better. Mostly, from what I can tell, there are some things where less is better and others where less is worse. Often there’s a level which is just right: more is too much, and less is too little. Salt intake falls into that bucket.

Less is more is a paraphrasing of a whole book, The Paradox of Choice, written by Barry Schwartz. It’s become a bit of a mantra, one that is deployed often without thought: “this page is cluttered, we need to remove stuff; less is more, dude”. This closes a conversation without exploring the alternatives.

It’s looking increasingly, however, like the idea is either false or, at the very least, that the book length discussion is more appropriate than the three word version.

Iyengar and Lepper’s jam study from back in 2000, where all this stuff came from, is coming under fire: a whole bunch of other studies don’t find the same effect. This is all described in more detail in an article on the Atlantic.

A logical conclusion of less is more is that one is enough. For shopping, at least, one appears to be too few. This relates to the topic of framing. My reading is that if you only have one item in a given category in a store, it’s easy to worry that the price of that item is too high. Introduce even one more, and the pricing is framed. Add a more expensive item and you will increase sales of your previously lonely cheaper item: a framing effect will suddenly make your original item seem better value. The implication being that, without the price framing, customers will feel the urge to look elsewhere to be sure they have a good deal.

Looking online for articles that Schwartz has written, things seem to come back to this one from the HBR in 2006:

Choice can no longer be used to justify a marketing strategy in and of itself. More isn’t always better, either for the customer or for the retailer. Discovering how much assortment is warranted is a considerable empirical challenge.

That is, less can be better, but sometimes more can be better; and it’s expensive, but sometimes you just have to pay the price to find out.

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