It’s happened to all of us. That one afternoon when you sprung from the couch and shouted into an empty living room, “Today is the day I start cooking!”
You grabbed your car keys, and with a list in your hand and a dream in your heart, you rushed to the local supermarket. You entered through the sliding doors and stood before its beautiful bounty; ready to handpick everything you’d need to prepare your very own, vaguely edible, home-cooked meal.
Only you didn’t pick anything.
Because within the span of minutes you felt overwhelmed.
You realized that just writing the word “pasta” was dumb because there are like 40 different kinds. (“What in the hell is fregula?”)
You discovered that choosing seasoning was impossible because spices are just a million different things that look like leaves. (“Is this basil or oak?”)
And you learned that olive oil can be both “virgin” and “extra-virgin” as your mind began to collapse in on itself like a poorly built shed. (“How can something be extra virgin?”)
You searched for the familiar.
The bread aisle maybe???
No. There were a million types of bread too.
You collapsed onto your knees; and next to a loaf of sourdough, you wept quietly. There would be no Italian.
Such is “The Paradox of Choice”. A contradiction in our lives based on two things:
- The firm belief that more choice equals more freedom.
- The sad reality that more choice only leads to more anxiety, and sometimes, paralysis.
The paradox of choice says that our brains have a threshold where the number of options goes from being beneficial to burdensome. And this paradox is the reason you’ve never made pasta. It’s the reason Soylent exists. It’s the reason why spending more than 20-minutes in the grocery store has you googling things like “do people need food to live?”.
America’s overwhelming number of options is why Steve Jobs wore mom jeans for 12 years. At some point, he realized that he could only make so many choices in a day, so he eliminated as many as possible (like what to wear) to avoid an overload.
And it’s not just him.
Obama, Einstein, Georgia O’Keefe, Johnny Cash, the Clinton pantsuit – take a trip through history and you’ll find the smartest people keep it simple.
So why hasn’t one of the smartest companies?
By the end of 2017, Netflix will have released 1,000 hours of original content (what cool people in the biz call TV shows, movies, and specials). A threshold they’ll cross in the same year they’ve committed almost $16 billion to making more.
That’s a lot of stuff to watch. And a lot of choices to be made.
Netflix seems to believe that a constant flood of new shows, movies, and specials makes its customers happy. That the value of a Netflix subscription is directly linked to the amount of stuff you can watch on the platform. That more quantity automatically equals more quality.
But does it?
I’m not so sure.
And neither is the investment giant, Vanguard.
The $5 trillion company recently commissioned a study from the University of Pennsylvania on this very subject. They wanted to understand the link between the number of retirement plans they offered customers, and the number of customers who chose one. Or, more simply put, “How Much Choice Is Too Much?”
Vanguard’s study revealed that when they offered a group of employees only two choices for a retirement plan, employees would choose one option 75% of the time. But when they offered a group of employees 59 retirement plans, employees would choose one only 60% of the time.
In other words, when the choices got too high, 15% percent of people just said “fuck it” and didn’t choose anything. They literally denied themselves free money because making a choice became too difficult.
Imagine what might happen when the choices for what to watch become too difficult.
A personal study I conducted – one entitled “Doug’s Netflix Watching Habits: Where Are His Pants?” – yielded some interesting results:
- RESULT #1: Doug spent more time deciding what to watch on Netflix than he did actually watching things on Netflix.
- RESULT #2: Doug’s Netflix queue was a finely curated collection of movies, shows, and specials that he will never, ever view.
- RESULT #3: When deciding what to watch, Doug would frequently panic and end up choosing an episode of “Parks and Recreation” that he had seen at least 40 times.
Essentially, the study revealed that a lot of the time I would say “fuck it”. Just like 15% of the employees in the Vanguard study.
The reason? The more I scrolled through all the options on Netflix, the more I felt like I would be missing out on something great by picking anything at all.
I experienced Netflix FOMO. A sensation that increased my paralysis, and made the idea of disengaging seem more appealing.
Granted, this study had a very small sample size (one Doug), but I have a hunch I’m not the only one who has felt this way. And insights from 7Park Data on Netflix streaming suggest that my hunch might be correct:
Just look at all those old ass shows.
This data is from 2016, but it’s an interesting glimpse into the habits of the Netflix user. One that seems to suggest that viewers prefer the familiar.
And that raises some interesting questions:
- Are viewers opting for the stories they know and love, because it’s gotten too exhausting to tackle something new?
- Is it possible that this preference for the familiar could increase as Netflix clutters its home page with more original content (AKA “new” & “scary” stuff)?
Obviously, Netflix is trying to replace all of these familiar shows and movies their own productions, because it knows it will lose all this content when studios try to launch their own streaming services. But I think releasing a bajillion things at once is going about it the wrong way.
It makes it seem like they’re a factory not an art house. Like they’re in the business of collection as opposed to curation. And that’s an important distinction.
I think it’s better to be Nick at Nite with their lineup of old classics than NBCUniversal with its dumpster full of new fires.
I think it’s better to be HBO than “hey maybe watch this”.
If you ask me, their current approach of throwing some random shit up on the homepage every week isn’t working. Honestly, I don’t know what any of these movies or shows are and I kind of don’t care. Getting me interested in one thing should be a bigger priority. Especially, when there’s already a million other options.
I mean, it’s probably telling that a lot of Netflix’s biggest hits debuted back when there weren’t many offerings on the homepage, right? “House of Cards”, “Orange is the New Black”, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” – they all came out early. And that seems to suggest there’s value in putting fewer things out and hyping them up more.
Under Netflix’s current modus operandi, the law of averages says that a few shows like ”Stranger Things” and ”13 Reasons Why” will pop-off and gain steam. But given how much Netflix spends on content, taking L’s on so many duds seems like a waste of money. One that dilutes a smart brand and could result in viewers losing the faith necessary to take a leap on a new show or movie in the future.
Ultimately, splashing the pot with content, is just contributing to an untenable level of saturation. Point blank: there’s just too much stuff to watch these days. And that’s making it less and less enjoyable to watch anything at all.
ARE YOU TRYING TO MAKE ME READ BOOKS, NETFLIX?!?!
I’m sure Netflix would be uncomfortable with me saying they’re in the business of addiction, but they kind of are. They want you to “binge watch” their shows. And that presents them with their own paradox of choice, because a lot of research suggests that addiction and poor decision making are linked.
The research tells us that if you want someone to get hooked on your product, you have to reel them in first. You have to make the choice crystal clear. You have to force-feed them donuts like Homer Simpson in hell.
Choice overload gets a pass at the grocery store because we all have to eat.
But no one has stream anything.
That day when I wanted to start cooking – after I was overloaded by ingredients – I went back to my apartment so I could wallow in defeat. I slumped down into my couch and turned on the TV – but I couldn’t escape the pangs of hunger.
Luckily, I had just the thing.
I went to the pantry and grabbed a bag of powdered sugar donuts – the small Hostess kind you could find at any 7-Eleven in America. They had been my favorite treat as a kid, and even as an adult, I knew they would provide a reliable escape. They were always sweet; always delicious; always comforting.
I ate about 12 of them while I watched an episode of “Parks and Rec” on Netflix.
And for about 22 minutes, I was happy.