Sure, there’s a lot of difficult decisions you have to make in life—like which house to buy and what to name your dog—but is there anything harder than trying to decide between avocado toast and gluten-free pancakes at your favorite brunch spot? Don’t feel bad about your lack of decision making, though. It turns out there’s a psychological reason why it’s so hard to choose—and why you always end up resorting to a game of eeny, meeny, miney, moe.
Around 20 years ago during a study conducted at a grocery store in California, researchers set out tables with different types of jam at different times during the day—one with 24 options, and another with only six options. While more people were drawn to the larger amount of jams, less people wound up purchasing them. With less choices, on the other hand, they were 10 times more likely to take one home with them. So, what’s the deal? You’d think more choices would be good, but in reality, having too many actually overwhelms your brain, making it really hard to make a decision.
To dig deeper into the initial findings and get a better understanding of what’s happening in the brain, researchers in a recent study published in the journal Nature Human Behavior had a small number of participants look at pictures of scenic landscapes—which were in sets of either 6, 12, or 24—that they could have printed on different types of products. As they tried to make their decision, their brain activity was being recorded on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines.
“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.” —Colin Camerer, PhD
The machines showed that two areas of the brain—the anterior cingulate cortex (the part that weighs the potential costs and benefits of a decision) and the striatum (the part that determines value)—had the most activity when participants were trying to choose between the 12 different options. Then they had the lowest activity while making the decision between 6 or 24 items. So what gives? It has to do with the two regions trying to weigh the potential reward with how hard the brain is going to have to work: “As the number of options increases, the potential reward increases, but then begins to level off due to diminishing returns,” the study authors explain.
Basically, as you have more choices, you have to put in more mental effort to make a decision—and researchers have found having a choice of 8 to 15 is the sweet spot for your decision making. But even with that amount—AKA those delicious menu items at brunch!—it can still be hard to choose. “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,” says study author Colin Camerer, PhD in a press release. So sure, having lots of different choices is nice—but if you can’t seem to make up your mind, just know it’s not your fault. It’s science.
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