Bing Your Brain: Choice Overload


First, a quick introduction: my name is Matt Wallaert, and I’m a behavioral scientist here at Bing. I work at the intersection of psychology and technology, and as part of that, you’ll see start seeing articles from me on the Bing blog as part of a new series we’re calling “Bing Your Brain.”

Eight years ago, social psychologist Barry Schwartz gave an influential TED on “The Paradox of Choice”: that even though it seems like more choices should always be better, we are actually less happy when we have too many choices. This is because of a phenomenon psychologists call choice overload and if you’ve ever stood in the salad dressing aisle at your local supermarket, you know exactly what it is.

There are several reasons that having too many choices can make us unhappy. First, it can create post-decisional regret, sometimes called buyer’s remorse: that feeling you get after you make a decision and instantly start worrying that another option might have been better. The more options, the more worry.

Second, even if we end up with a choice we are confident about, more choices mean that searching takes longer. So even when we find something that makes us happy, our enjoyment is reduced by the time we spent sorting through the options.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, when the choice set gets too big, we may just give up. It is like looking at a line of people outside a theater and leaving because you feel like you’ll just never get inside; too much choice can cause us to abandon the things that we truly want.

Psychologists have identified a number of strategies to deal with choice overload, most of which focus on narrowing down the set of options, which we call (unsurprisingly) choice reduction. And the reason we think about choice overload at Bing is that sorting through options is the very essence of what a search engine does.

Let’s take our salad dressing problem. There are over five million pages for the search “best salad dressing” and each one is a potential option. A search engine’s job is to determine the few that may be most helpful: we reduce the number of choices from millions down to the few that matter most. In search technology, this is often called “relevance”, and it is something that search engines are always looking to improve (indeed, head-to-head comparison tools like BingItOn are essentially a test of relevance.)

But narrowing down informational options isn’t the only way to reduce choice and help us decide. One of the most common strategies people use to make choices is to rely on two groups with very different knowledge: friends and experts. And that is one of the big reasons for Bing’s Social Sidebar feature, which surfaces the opinions of friends and experts right alongside traditional search results.

Friends and experts are useful in decision making for two very different reasons. To illustrate, let’s think about taking a trip to Hawaii (beats thinking about salad dressing!). If you’re like most people, your friends don’t have deep knowledge on Hawaii itself; maybe some of them have been there a few times and know a little, but they don’t truly have anything we could call expertise about Hawaii. But they do have expertise about a very important subject: you. So that’s why we put them at the top of Social Search: your friends know all about your preference for extreme sports, or white sand beaches, or local food. So even if they don’t know a ton about Hawaii, they can still guide you toward the experiences you are likely to enjoy because they know about you.

Experts, on the other hand, don’t have any knowledge about you personally. But they do know a great deal about their specialty. So even if your friends don’t have any experience with Hawaii and can’t help, a local who has lived there for 50 years can provide you with a valuable viewpoint that can help you make decisions. Not because they know what you specifically will like, but because they know what is worth doing and seeing and eating more generally. And that’s why you’ll see guidance from recognized experts in your Social Sidebar even if you don’t allow us to connect to your social networks to find your friends who have been to Hawaii.

Of course, to truly help you make decisions and avoid choice overload, the best strategy is a blended one. So if you haven’t already, consider connecting your Facebook account in Bing, so that we can give you informational results, expert opinions, and guidance from your friends. It is one of the important ways we’re trying to make your search better and since we never share your social network data or use it to sell advertisements (unlike some other search engines), why not give it a try? Because whether it is choosing salad dressing or what to do on a trip to Hawaii, Bing is making search better.

– Matt Wallaert, Bing Team

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