Nobody wants the last two seats.

After more than ten years working in or near a box office, I’ve become interested in the psychology of choice.

Why do some people simply take the best seats available and others dither back and forth before choosing the seats they were offered in the first place?

Why do some people ask their four-year-old to choose between the balcony and orchestra instead of deciding for themselves?

But this is the one that bothers me the most: why do people take longer to decide when there are fewer options?

This weekend we have two big shows, both of which are sold out. As the number of available seats dwindled, people had more and more trouble deciding whether or not to buy tickets and which seats to select.

A typical conversation would go like this:

Customer: “Do you have tickets left for the Buddy Guy concert?”

Box Office: “Yes, we have a few left.”

Customer: “Where are they located?”

Box Office: “We have some scattered singles downstairs and three pairs in the back of the balcony.”

Customer: “That’s it?”

Box Office: “That’s all we have available, but we have a very intimate venue. There really is no bad seat.”

Customer: “So you only have three pairs?”

Box Office: “Yep, only three pairs.”

Customer: “I’ll have to call you back.”

When faced with the idea that there are a very limited number of seats available, people tend to put off making a decision.

Is it because they worry that the seats aren’t good enough? Don’t they realize that if they wait, there may be no seats left at all?

I finally decided to do a little Googling to see if I could find out what causes this phenomena.

I started on the Psychology Today website, reading an article about, of all things, Trader Joe’s.

Simply put, it suggests that Trader Joe’s is succesful because it offers customers less choice. Instead of 40 brands of peanut butter, it has ten.

And what the store lacks in choice it makes up other ways, like lower prices.

But this is the sentence that spoke most closely to my box office example:

If the decision isn’t a huge one in terms of cost or consequence, people can usually make up their minds. It may take you longer to choose an entree from a 10-page restaurant menu than from a single page, but chances are that either way you won’t walk out of the restaurant without having chosen anything.

This is the complete opposite of what I have witnessed. The first person in line on the first day tickets go on sale usually take two minutes to pick their seats and they have the house from which to choose. It’s the last folks who struggle.

So I went back to the internet, trying to find research to support my experiences.

But everything I found contradicted my findings.

“An excess of options leaves us increasingly unhappy with any choice we make.”

“…an overload of options may actually paralyze people or push them into decisions that are against their own best interest.”

So I’m no closer to figuring out why people are reluctant to buying the last two tickets available.

Maybe tickets are just different than peanut butter and a concert venue is just different from a restaurant.

Or maybe I’m on to a major psychological research breakthrough. Do I sense a Nobel Prize in my future?


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