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Spoilt for choice

02 March 2011

New research published in Biology Letters reveals that when it comes to speed dating, too much choice is a bad thing.

Psychologists and behaviour scientists have long been interested in the question of how variety affects the choices we make.  While previous work has examined how the range of options affects our consumer preferences, this is the first time that the effects of variety have been examined in the choices we make in human relationships.

Alison Lenton and Marco Francesconi studied the choices and characteristics of more than 3600 male and female participants in speed dating events.  In these events, roughly equal numbers of female and male dates are given three minutes to talk to each other and later asked whether an individual date is a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.  Participants submit an online profile before the event detailing their age, occupation and other details about their character. 

One might imagine that having a wider variety of dates on offer leads to more successful proposals, simply because there is a higher likelihood that participants will come across a date who satisfies their criteria.  However, the scientists used participants’ profiles and the information about whether the mini-dates resulted in a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to show that actually, participants are much more likely to say ‘no’ when presented with a wide variety of choice.

So, does a wide variety of dates simply make us more choosy about who we say ‘yes’ to?  The authors think not, pointing out that “choosers made more proposals when faced with more options, but fewer proposals when these options were highly variable in their attributes, suggesting that choice variety yields greater confusion rather than greater choosiness...there is nothing to prevent speed daters from ‘hedging bets’ by choosing several options.  Instead, increasing variety led some participants not to choose at all.”