The Paradox of Choice: How ChatGPT is teaching us less is more

Wes Melton

In a dimly lit data center, rows upon rows of servers whir with a low, dissonate, lifeless hum. The green LEDs signal billions of transactions and interactions, each a fleeting touchpoint in the vast expanse of the ever expanding digital cosmos. It's here, the birthplace of ChatGPT, that we begin our journey in to the depths of the human mind and the fickle nature of customer attention.

While the robotic buzz of artificial intelligence might seem an unlikely setting for an examination into human psychology, if we look closely at our interactions with artificial intelligences like ChatGPT, we may be surprised to learn that it might reveal more about ourselves than one might initially think.

At the heart of it is a curious question: In a world where Google and Bing deliver a list of 10 blue links with every search query — 10 potential choices — why is ChatGPT’s single, focused response resonating so powerfully? The answer lies not external to the human mind, but deep inside.

Attention is all we are

In a quaint bookstore outside Venice, an elderly shopkeeper once shared a profound insight: "When you have a thousand books," she whispered, glancing at the towering shelves, "people wander for hours, lost in choices. But place just one profound story on an otherwise empty shelf, and their attention is undivided."

In that dimly lit store, she exposed a fundamental truth about choices, decisions, trust, and the most valuable currency of our world: attention.

In Four Thousand Weeks: Time management for mortals, Oliver Burkeman profoundly communicates the grounding reality of this aspect of human existence. "Most other resources on which we rely as individuals - food, money, and electricity - are things that facilitate life" he says. "Attention on the otherhand, just is life. Your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention."

Every facet of human experience is governed by where we direct our attention. It shapes our perceptions, colors our emotions, creates our memories, and defines our reality.

We attend to the melodies of distant memories, the pressing demands of the present, and the allure of future aspirations. Our entire experience of life is nothing more than what we currently give our very limited attention to.

So then, we find as marketers and brand builders our ever present task is, at it's apex, the process of not only capturing and attempting to direct consumer attention, but about keeping it.

This brings us squarely to the "Paradox of Choice": As options increase, our satisfaction with those choices decreases and we grow disinterested; inattentive. Rather than basking in the abundance, we often instead find ourselves overwhelmed, second-guessing our decisions and - paradoxically - less content with the choices we make or less interested in making a decision at all.

As humans, we're not just consumers. We're discoverers, forever chasing the thrill of the new and undiscovered. However, when we feel we have left the realm of discovery and are paralyzed by choice, our innate instincts lead us to seek safety and familiarity.

Enter ChatGPT. A simple interface with one path. One primary course of action. One request. One response. It has been trained on the world's information (like Google), but is designed to deliver a knowledge discovery expedition with far less options, choices, or starting points. It is designed not to deliver multiple possible answers, but only and exclusively what it believes to be the answer.

Almost magically, ChatGPT has overnight become a search engine that isn't a search engine that consumers are using in place of a search engine. How might that have come to be?

An unreal growth journey

In case you've missed it, ChatGPT became the fastest software product in the annals of human history to reach 100 Million active users. This triumph came in a mere 60 days. An unprecedented milestone in software history.

ChatGPT 100 million user growth chart

While there are myriad reasons why this has likely happened, not the least of those reasons lie within ChatGPT's ability to deliver on what the human pysche demands and craves most: discovery, simplicity, and reward.

Instead of overwhelming users with a barrage of information, as traditional search engines do, it offers a singular focal point. In doing so, it doesn't just cater to our need for information but speaks to our deeper longing for clarity amidst the chaos.

When navigating the labyrinthine corridors of the internet, one develops a kind of sixth sense, a survival instinct sharpened by years of sifting through the clutter of search results. Each blue link presented by a search engine like Google is not just a promise of content but also a potential pitfall, a gamble.

There's a brief analysis of titles, descriptions, and perhaps the reliability of the domain. But herein lies the challenge for the modern digital traveler: with every link, there’s an underlying assessment of risk versus reward.

Contrastively, ChatGPT, at its core, is radical in its simplicity: one question, one answer. In bypassing the traditional display of multiple search results, ChatGPT inadvertently sidesteps the psychological process of filtration and risk assessment we’ve become so accustomed to.

The choice paralysis, the skepticism of clicking on a misleading link, the uncertainty of finding valid information - these are all reduced to a simple prompt and anticipation of a (mostly) accurate and helpful response.

But in sidestepping one set of challenges, ChatGPT introduces another: the monumental pressure of precision and delight. The user’s trust hinges precariously on the efficacy of each singular response. In bypassing the drawbacks of traditional search, ChatGPT amplifies the expectation of accuracy.

The room for error narrows dramatically. If the typical search engine's results are a shotgun spread, ChatGPT's response is a sniper's bullet: targeted, precise, but demanding unerring accuracy.

While ChatGPT's streamlined interaction model is undeniably its strength, it is also its chink in the armor. The product's success and longevity lies in consistently hitting the mark. A single subpar response doesn't just risk a user retrying their query but potentially turning away from the platform altogether.

ChatGPT's simplicity and singular appeal introduces risk to their product's success via another paradigm: Choice Inversion.

Choice Inversion: The subtle art of attention redirection

In the heart of New York City, Leo ran a boutique coffee shop. His coffees were exceptional, but in order to succeed, he knew he had to get customers to try the product if he had any chance competing with the established giants.

One day, a customer named Mia walked in, clearly in a rush. "If I order a coffee will it be ready in time for my meeting in 10 minutes?," she said, glancing at her watch.

Leo, spotting an opportunity, asked, "Would you like our signature Brooklyn Blend or the Manhattan Mocha?"

Caught off guard, Mia hesitated. The initial decision - to buy or not to buy - had subtly shifted. Now, she was contemplating which coffee to choose, not whether to buy one at all.

"The Brooklyn Blend," she responded as she reached for her wallet.

This is Choice Inversion at work.

Leo successfully transitioned a customer from having a conversation with a 50% chance of a bad outcome for him in to a conversion path with a much higher likelihood of a good outcome.

This is also core to the inherent risks in ChatGPT's approach.

At the intersection of technology and psychology, they've tapped into an intriguing dance of cognition. Instead of the usual buffet of options we're presented with through the typical search engine experience, they introduce an elegant inversion of choice. They've inverted the choice from "Which of these 10 links will I click?" to, "Is the solitary response satisfactory?

They've taken a massive risk inherent in the product's experience, dramatically reducing pathways a user might feel a successful outcome has occurred. An enormous bet was placed. But, thus far, consumer feedback and engagement is rewarding their appeal to the simplicity and discovery our minds innately desire.

Perhaps what they've proven is given the option of less to sift through, humans are more forgiving of imperfect journey's if they feel less cognitive load was placed on them during the experience.

The big bet on quality

ChatGPT's ascension, swift and undeniable, echoes with the lessons from commercial psychology's long, documented history. It becomes a parable for us, an invitation to reflect on our engagements, as we vie for that ever-elusive prize: the undivided attention of our audience.

For their strategy to work, they have to continually improve the breadth and depth of the user queries their AI assistant can answer, not with mere accuracy, but with delight, and an unwavering focus on training their users they can address all - or mostly all - that one might dare ask it.

If we turn our attention to the neon-lit streets of Tokyo, where a small sushi bar beckons, perhaps we find the archetype of our story.

From the outside, it seems ordinary, dwarfed by the imposing skyscrapers surrounding it. But inside, Chef Jiro, an octogenarian with a gleam in his eye, is meticulously preparing sushi.

He doesn’t serve an extensive menu boasting hundreds of items. Instead, he offers just a few pieces, each a masterpiece; a result of decades of refinement.

Juxtapose this scene against the sprawling digital highways of the internet. Every second, millions of ads flash across screens, each clamoring for a moment of our fractured attention. Marketers, in an effort to be seen, often bombard consumers rather than taking a deep focus on delighting them.

The wisdom of Chef Jiro tells a different story. By curating a limited menu, he ensures that each piece of sushi is memorable.

Similarly, in the realm of marketing, perhaps the secret isn't in overwhelming consumers with choices but in offering them a carefully curated experience. One that’s tailored, meaningful, and unforgettable.

Brands that recognize this shift are the ones that stand out in a saturated market. They command higher prices. Enjoy less fickle customers. They understand that today’s consumers are not just looking for products; they're seeking experiences, stories, and connections.

By focusing on 'quality over quantity', these brands don't just sell; they create legacies, much like Chef Jiro with his sushi.

ChatGPT is more than a technological marvel

ChatGPT is a modern marvel of sophisticated algorithms, billions of source texts, millions of hours of training, and decades of collaborative research coalescing in a transitionary moment in human history.

Yet, they've up-ended a decades long paradigm of typing a question in a search box and getting 10 blue links as the result. 10 opportunities to be helped. 10 opportunities to be disappointed.

Google and Bing have spent billions over the last several decades attempting to deliver the 10 best choices.

ChatGPT is spending billions giving users just one.