See if this sounds familiar: you’re standing on line at Chipotle or Sweetgreen or Panera Bread, trying to decide what to order for lunch. The choices just keep coming, with infinite options for customization and swapping out ingredients. And when you finally make it to the cashier to place your order, your mind suddenly goes completely blank. You know it’s time to make a decision, but the possibilities just overwhelm you.
As it turns out, there’s a scientific explanation for this frustrating situation. According to the California Institute of Technology, scientists and psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “choice overload”, and it’s a classic case of “too much of a good thing”.
Colin Camerer, Professor of Behavioral Economics at Caltech, points out that humans like to know that they have plenty of choices. But once they’re faced with a plethora of options, the sense of satisfaction actually dissipates. Ever wonder why Whole Foods carries dozens of brands and flavors of cookies and potato chips and even toothpaste? It’s because “people tend to feel freer and like they have more control over their lives when they have more options to choose from, even if having all those options ends up distressing them at decision time,” explains the Caltech study.
Caltech wanted to ascertain whether there’s a clear point at which more options become a burden, and to make that discovery, Camerer and his team asked volunteers to look at a series of images and decide which they’d like to have printed on a coffee mug. He showed the images in sets of 6, then sets of 12, then sets of 24.
As the volunteers perused the photos, a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine monitored their brain activity. Camerer found that activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (the part of the brain that weighs the pros and cons of any decision) and the startium (the part of the brain that determines value) was highest when participants had 12 options to choose from and lowest when they had either 6 or 24 choices.
Camerer therefore concluded that humans like to have choices, but only a moderate amount. Too few or too many result in a mental check-out, like what happens when you find yourself standing slack-jawed at the front of the Au Bon Pain line.
Is there a way to expand our brains’ abilities to handle decisions with multiple possibilities and variables? Camerer thinks that further research will allow scientists to gain a stronger understanding of “mental effort”, the cost of intellectual exertion, and what can be done to balance these factors. In the meantime, you may want to consider making a decision about lunch before you head to the restaurant in order to avoid the annoying “freeze” of choice overload.
Or just make your coworker decide for you. We all love a surprise.
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