About 20 years ago, researchers decided to study how we react to having too much choice. They set up a table full of jams in a grocery store, some with 24 samples, and some with just six.
Although shoppers were more likely to stop and peruse when there was a larger selection, they were also less likely to buy anything.
In a new study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, researchers at Caltech looked further into why a choice overload makes us behave this way.
The researchers gave volunteers a selection of pictures of scenic landscapes they could have printed on a souvenir like a coffee mug. They were shown either six, 12, or 24 pictures in total. Then, they were asked to make a decision while lying in an MRI machine, so the researchers could measure their brain activity.
As a control, they were shown all the images again, but a computer randomly selected which one they would get.
Results of the scan revealed brain activity in two regions of the brain while participants were making their choices - the anterior cingulate cortex, where you weigh up costs and benefits, and the striatum, where you determine value. Brain activity was highest when the subjects had 12 options to pick from, rather than six or 24, suggesting around 12 is the sweet spot for optimum decision making.
You might relate to how it feels when you're trying to pick what sandwich to get at lunchtime, or struggling to choose a new Netflix show to watch. How many times have you scrolled through films, only to pick something you've seen before? How many times have you gone back to the same lunch spot, despite there being plenty of other places you want to try?
When there are fewer options though, somehow, it seems easier to make a decision. But when there are too few, you feel cheated.
"The idea is that the best out of 12 is probably rather good, while the jump to the best out of 24 is not a big improvement," said Colin Camerer, a professor of behavioural economics at Caltech and author of the study.
"Essentially, our eyes are bigger than our stomachs... When we think about how many choices we want, we may not be mentally representing the frustrations of making the decision."
He said the ideal number of options is probably somewhere between 8 and 15, depending on the reward, and your personality. And although we may feel freer and in control when we have lots to choose from, this actually ends up distressing us when it comes to making the decision.
Too much choice is arguably a bad thing anyway. While dating, people can fall into the trap of the "paradox of choice," where they obsess over little things they don't like about their partner, and constantly feel there's someone out there who's better. Essentially, it's the "grass is always greener" mindset. But if you're always looking out for someone more perfect, you're likely to miss out on something great.
So we might be better off with fewer options in life, or at least realising that more choice isn't always superior. Otherwise, we might end up never falling in love, never choosing a souvenir, or unable to even pick up a small jar or jam.
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