Too much of a good thing

Back in 2000, psychologists Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and Mark R. Lepper of Stanford published the results of an interesting study that shed light on how people make choices.

In their experiment, the choosers were customers of a grocery store in Menlo Park, California called Draeger’s. (They bill it as “upscale,” and I’ll vouch for that. When I lived in northern California, I’d drop by every now and then to see how the other half ate.) What was being chosen was jam.

Specifically, the researchers set up a tasting table offering samples of “exotic” varieties of jam from Wilkin & Sons (Purveyors to Her Majesty the Queen, no less). One day, they offered six varieties. Another day, they offered twenty-four. They tracked how many people stopped by, who those people were (by observation), and, ultimately, whether they bought jam.

Of the people who had six to choose from, thirty percent bought jam. Of the people with twenty-four choices, only three percent bought. Variety of choice, in some circumstances at least, inhibits purchase.

It’s a bloody miracle that anyone, ever, buys seeds.

Have you ever looked at a seed catalog? Take a gander at Fedco’s. There are forty-five – count ‘em, forty-five – varieties of tomato. Twenty-one of cucumber. Even the vegetables you thought were pretty straightforward, like eggplant, can flummox you. Do you want the Black King, the Swallow, or the Pingtung Long?

If you think reading the descriptions can help, think again. Catalog writers are supposed to make you want to buy whatever it is (trust me on this one – I’ve done some catalog writing), so each variety sounds tastier, more insect-resistant, and easier to grow than the next.

The bottom line: it’s a crap shoot. You just pick one and hope for the best. If it works out, get it again next year. If it doesn’t, try something else.

Unfortunately, that strategy doesn’t work so well with trees. The selection problem is the same, but it’ll be a good ten years before you find out whether you chose wisely.

And choosing is particularly hard for apples. There are 2500 varieties of apple grown in the United States, and estimates put the worldwide tally at 7500. That’s just a wild-ass guess, though. Because apples are heterozygous, the real number is probably closer to a zillion.

Heterozygous means that they have dominant and recessive alleles for the same trait. An apple tree that produces large, red, sweet fruit may have offspring the produce small, green, sour fruit, depending on which alleles make it into the particular seed from which the offspring grew. It’s just like in humans – you start with my parents and you might get me but, if you’re really lucky, you get my brother.

This means that apples, left to their own devices, are almost as variable as humans. Which is why growers don’t leave them to their own devices. Instead, they take a cutting from the tree they wish to propagate and graft it on to a rootstock. When you’re choosing an apple variety from a catalog, that’s what you’re looking at. Which means that the number of choices is significantly lower than a zillion.

In my case, it’s sixty-one. We’re going to get our trees from Fedco, a garden-supplies place in Waterville, Maine. We chose Fedco because gardeners we know swear by them, and their location indicates that they know a thing or two about growing fruit in our climate. They sell apple varieties running the gamut from the familiar, like the Macoun, to the obscure, like the Esopus Spitzenburg (an apple of “unkown parentage,” made famous by Herman Melville in Bartleby the Scrivener, when Turkey and Nippers, the two coworkers, “were fain to moisten their mouths very often with Spitzenbergs”).

Picking from sixty-one wouldn’t be quite so daunting if we were only picking one. But we want four, each a different variety. That means we’re faced with over 12 million possible combinations. I wonder how that would go over at Draeger’s.

To help us narrow it down, we’ve asked every recreational apple grower we know for advice. Turns out, everyone’s got a favorite, and everyone’s favorite is different. In the end, we made our choices using a combination of research, nostalgia, and voodoo.

We’re getting a Baldwin, because it’s supposed to be both disease- and insect-resistant, although it has the disadvantage of being biennial (which means it tends to overproduce one year and underproduce the next). We’re getting a Cortland because Kevin likes them. We’re getting a Chestnut Crabapple because we really liked the description. (Yeah, I know I warned you about copywriters, but we couldn’t resist). Our fourth is going to be a green variety (we’ve been told that insects tend to pass them over), and we’re deciding between the GoldRush and the Grimes Golden.

If you want to know how we did, check back in ten years. But I’ll let you know about the eggplant in September.

15 people are having a conversation about “Too much of a good thing

  1. Good luck Tamar Appleseed! I’m always swayed by the seed catalog writers’ descriptions too. I WANT to believe all the claims.

    You can’t go far wrong getting healthy stock from a reputable specialist.

    The first chapter of Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire is all about the development of the apple – fascinating read!

  2. My approach with seeds is to buy varieties that will work for my zone, and which I’ve eaten and enjoyed. If I could do the same with trees, I guess I would. But when we bought a bunch of trees from Fedco last year, we simply went through the descriptions trying to match what we wanted with Fedco’s comments. Fortunately, Fedco blows sunshine up no one’s skirt when it comes to variety descriptions. They’ll give it to straight. We went for fruits that stored well, from trees that wouldn’t get too big. That narrowed it down quite a bit. Another consideration for advanced planning is to choose varieties that will ripen their fruit during a lull in the harvesting year. No trees are allowed to ripen in August-September in our backyard. Too much else going on then.

  3. I did sort of what Kate did- chose late harvest varieties for something to do in the fall, since the summer is too busy. Since I wanted apples for cider making and keeping, those are what I ordered. And I ordered two each, for a total of eight, on semi-dwarf rootstock so that I can espalier them for easier access to the fruit. Having them wired to a fence will take care of the shallow-root-equals-poor-anchoring problem Choosing took days and days of agonizing over what the best choices would be, but I finally got the job done. This reminds me that the nursery said they’d ship in January, and I haven’t heard anything yet. Today’s the last shipping date of the month. Think I’ll go write an email.

  4. Nothing is really wrong with the Iyengar-Lepper study except that it has been replicated many times, sometimes with Lepper’s result, sometimes with the opposite result, and usually with no result at all. The conclusion when you look at all the data is that the paradox of choice does not, in fact, exist. But it sounds cool, it’s counter-intuitive, it’s easy to understand, and it has therefore become a staple of journalism.

  5. All gardening takes a leap of faith, I think. We plant our bulbs in autumn with the faith that they will pop up in the spring and that we will be there to see them. Sometimes we get a surprise. The trees, I agree, are harder because they seem so permanent and it is a huge investment in time to have them come to fruition. As I read the , “apple a day…in 5 years” post, I was reminded of the clump birch my husband & I planted in our yard to honor a godchild, thinking it would be fun to watch them grow together. We long ago left that leafy suburb, but every time I am in the Boston area, I try to drive past our old house and there it is, now 27 years old and gloriously shading the front porch as we knew it would. Plant your trees, Tamar, and have faith that they will grace someone’s life long after you are gone. Btw, the jam test? The Wilkin’s Little Scarlet for me…deelish!

  6. beachnitpicker says:

    Aaron, of course, will sneer at my anecdotal data, but I do believe in the paradox of choice. Forty-some years ago, I gave up keeping kosher and it was weeks before I was really comfortable in the supermarket again. I didn’t have to read the fine print on labels; I had the run of the meat department. I could buy anything–absolutely anything. I wandered the aisles like a lost soul.

  7. too many choices…

    back home there is a saying, wer die Wahl hat – hat die Qual

    I thought you made a good choice, they are all tasty.

  8. Jen — Botany of Desire was my introduction to apples. And, despite having written catalog copy, I still see those big healthy trees, groaning with fruit, when I read the descriptions. I, too, am a believer. I think it’s a form of optimism.

    Kate — As much as I enjoy sunshine up my skirt, I hope you’re right about Fedco. I think I’ve read about every single on of their apples by now, and at least 2/3 of them sounded appealing. We also picked some good keepers, but didn’t factor in the time of ripening — I need to think farther ahead.

    Paula — I hope your trees come as ordered! Keep me posted on their progress.

    Aaron — I haven’t seen the studies that come up with different results, but I’d like to. Could you point me in the direction of one or two? Or, better yet, do you know of a meta-analysis that tries to make sense of the lot?

    Susan — That’s a lovely story. I like to think I’m not so selfish that, if we ended up leaving this house before my trees mature, I would begrudge the new owners the benefit.

    BNP — I think we’ve all been in situations where we’ve felt stymied by too much choice, but I would like to know — once and for all — whether that’s a phenomenon that experimentation can verify.

    Christl — If the paradox of choice is widely enough experienced to have a saying in German, that’s certainly evidence that it exists. (For those of you who don’t speak German, that’s roughly “He who has choice has pain.” I had to look up Qual.)

  9. Actually, apples aside (though I do fancy those candysweet ones) I thought the most interesting point was about marketing studies involving choice, and there are a lot of further studies, including common sense, to back that up. Faced with many choices, people become overwhelmed. The more similar the choices are, the worse the problem is.

    Which is why in terms of marketable product, you do well to offer only a few options in a variety of categories, rather than to focus on ONE category with many choices.

    I know. This was neither funny nor fascinating to anyone but myself.

    So…. apples?

  10. A guy named Scheibehenne at the University of Basil conducted a bunch of his own choice experiments and did a meta-analysis as well. I haven’t read it, but Tim Harford discusses it here.

    I don’t discount, let alone “sneer at,” anecdotes, or folk sayings either. They are usually true. But saying something exists in certain individuals is very different from saying it exists in the mass.

  11. Amanda — I’m with you on finding the whole problem interesting (after all, I posted it in the first place). And the similarity of choices may have bearings on Aaron’s point.

    Aaron — I read Harford, and I think a definitive analysis of this would require more research than I have leisure to do right now. Clearly, there are circumstances in which variety impedes choice, and circumstances in which it doesn’t, and we don’t fully understand which circumstances are which. Similarity of the choices, as Amanda points out, might be one of the circumstances. All I have to offer is my anecdote — being stymied by apple varieties, among which there is not much difference.

  12. beachnitpicker says:

    Aaron, I didn’t mean that you sneered at my anecdote, only my attempt to trot it out as evidence for the paradox of choice. I guess most of us have had similar experiences, and because they seem counter-intuitive, we are more likely to remember them than occasions when a variety of choices actually assisted our decision-making.

  13. I think you have all made excellent points.
    However… having so many choices I am struggling to decide who’s right!

  14. I loved reading about the study and the effects of too much choice. Luckily my seed box is enormous so the vast ammount of seeds that I ordered this year are hidden from Danny.

    I’ve spent hours drawing up plans to fit them all in! Now considering ploughing up the front garden…

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