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What My Students Have Been Learning, Overchoice And The Daily Show Edition…

November 25th, 2012 · 4 Comments
Behavioral Econ · Buyer Beware · Just For Fun

Probably like most instructors (at all levels), I wonder a lot of the time how much my students actually pay attention to anything that I say. (My students’ exam scores would indicate that, on average, they listen to about 75 percent of what I say.) Sometimes I’m dismayed at their reaction, as when I literally saw students’ heads go down on their desks when I referred to the concept of logit and probit regressions. (I wasn’t even asking them to do anything with them, only to remember what they were and that they exist!)

Other times, I am really impressed by the details that my students pay attention to and later remember. Case in point: check out the following lecture on overchoice:


(Or, if you prefer, in PDF form.)

Hopefully those slides were interesting enough on their own, but they were only part of the story. Technically speaking, those slides were presented over the course of 2 class meetings, and as soon as I started my lecture on the second day a hand shot up in the front row:

Me: Yes?
Student: *looks at paper reference on lecture slide* Is this the same professor who was on The Daily Show the other day?
Me: What now?
Student: Professor Iyengar. I think there was someone by that name on The Daily Show.
Me: I’m pretty sure that Sheena Iyengar is a professor at Columbia, so it’s entirely possible.

At this point the rest of the class wasn’t going to forgo an excuse to shut me up, so I went on the show’s web site and searched for “Iyengar.” Sure enough, this is what I found:

This so confirms my hypothesis that we need more Jon Stewarts to trick people into learning. It also confirms my suspicion that knowing about the overchoice problem doesn’t make one better able to overcome it. (If you don’t believe me, try going on the Internet and picking out the right video camera for you. I dare you.)

Update: OH MY GOD THE INTERNET. I went to google to find an appropriate overchoice link for an inquiring friend when I stumbled on a lesson in overchoice in interpretive dance form. Not sure I would have gotten to that conclusion on my own, but it’s right there in the video description.

Tags: Behavioral Econ · Buyer Beware · Just For Fun

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bo Zimmerman // Nov 25, 2012 at 7:35 pm

    This is really about getting us to stop reading all the other economists and spend more time here, isn’t it?

  • 2 econgirl // Nov 25, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    Yep- I want a monopoly on your attention so I can raise the price and don’t have to produce as much. =P

  • 3 Michael Ryan // Nov 26, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    This is very anecdotal, but one of the things that I do in my copious spare time is run merchandise tables at indy wrestling shows in Montreal and Ottawa.

    There are about 50 DVDs that I can bring to sell. In practice, there are about 5 titles that sell with any consistency, but if I only bring those 5, I sell less copies than if I bring say 20 titles.

    Even if there are 20 titles on the table, I rarely sell anything other than the top 5, but I will sell more copies of the Top 5 if there is the illusion of other choices. (The choice is real, but I am not sure my sales would be that different if I had empty pretty boxes for the non-Top 5.)

    On the other side, bringing all 50 titles actually reduces sales (not to mention being a colossal pain in the ass) but rotating what titles I bring for the non-top 5, also increases sales – again, mainly for the Top 5 titles.

    (Sample size for this is small. I usually go to 6-9 shows a year and have been running the merch table since 2005. Shows have anywhere between 100 and 1000 in attendance. Selling 10 DVDs at one show is considered a great result.)

  • 4 Austin Dusseau // Dec 5, 2012 at 8:34 pm

    Perhaps this could explain, in part, why consumers are willing to spend hundreds extra on Apple products. when consumers go to buy a PC, they end up having to choose from a wide range of products from a multitude of companies. If you go into an Apple store or website to buy a computer, you have basically 4 options, and customization is very limited.

    When you get that product, the OS gives you very limited choices on how you want to organize, Its similar with all apple products, Mp3 players from apple have as few buttons as possible and very few options for how you would like your music organized.

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