Decision Making: The Magic Number Is Six

According to the Bible, God created the world in six days. Six is considered a lucky number in China. Get Your Kicks on Route 66.

Ben and Jerry said the ’90’s were the ’60s standing on their head. Seriously?! Six is a really important number. We should get to know more about six because it is a “decider” digit.

Every day we have to make decisions. Should I wear this or that? Go out? Stay in? Go to this restaurant or that one? Do I want the steak [cooked] rare or medium rare? Pepper? Blue cheese or vinaigrette? Smooth or chunky?  Small, medium or large? With or without? Regular or decaf? Law school, medical school or culinary school?

In order to survive, we have to narrow our choices. Otherwise, we’ll go crazy. If we decide to write a cookbook based on the Chicken Dishes of the World, we will drown. It would be far easier to compile the Chicken Dishes of Chicago.

Sheena S. Iyengar, the S.T. Lee Professor of Business at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business, is among the world’s experts on the subject of decision making. She delves into the relationship between how we choose and who we are.

The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyenga

I mention the distinguished professor because her most famous (at least to me) study, concerned the number ‘six’. The version I discovered concerns heuristics.

It was on Google that I tested a strawberry jam theory that goes like this. A customer wants a pot of strawberry jam so she “Googles” it.  Up pops about 5,260,000 strawberry jam references in less than 60 seconds: where to buy it, how to make it, etc.–all based on Google’s unique heuristics.

Delving deeper:

  • One site offers 12 different kinds of strawberry jam. The customer is immediately exhausted. Twelve choices is six too many so she clicks to another site.
  • Here only three kinds of strawberry jam are offered. Hmm. The customer decides this company is way too small. (If I give them my credit card number, they’ll probably steal my identity — and I’ll never receive the jam.)
  • Click. And Eureka! Here are six kinds of strawberry jam. I think I’ll place my order this company. I submit my order. Done, and done.

This seemingly totally irrelevant stuff is actually valuable information.

If a fast food restaurant offers more than six choices, the line slows and everyone quickly gets grumpy. If a bakery offers six kinds of cup cakes, the buyer will buy at least one, maybe all six. Offer six bagels, and we’ll buy ‘em all even if we had planned to buy only one.

Many chefs figured out that it is shrewd to offer six choices on the menu, particularly on holiday menus. For Easter, there must be: lamb, ham, a fish, a vegetarian dish and two other selections. Keeping the number of choices to six means there is briefer interrogation of the server and  the tables keep turning, and the reservations are honored on time.

(Except, on Thanksgiving, the menu should be turkey, turkey, turkey, more turkey, no turkey and only one other choice.)

Prix-fixe menus with six choices work well particularly when guests are less interested in intricate preparations and more concerned about how much time they have before returning to work or getting to the theater on time.

Linda Duke, the CEO of Duke Marketing, says promotional sentences should be only six words long (or actually, short). Any more, and readers lose interest. She urges restaurateurs to try describing their restaurant this way:

“Ask yourself what makes your restaurant different? Define what you do best? Now try expressing your entire philosophy with six words. Great food. Great service. Finger-licking good — (though not too great if you have sanitized hands).”

Will you ‘deep six‘ this commentary, ‘take the road less traveled’ or when it ‘comes to a fork in the road, take it’?

You decide.