Choice Overload: Why You Can’t Decide What to Order for Lunch

choice overload

By Yvonne Milosevic

Step into any supermarket in the U.S. and it’s immediately clear that you’re in the land of bounty. Browse the yogurt section, and there are literally 78 flavors of Yoplait. Need to pick up some cereal? Good luck deciding between the top 100 varieties Maxim has crowned. And don’t get us started on the menu at the Cheesecake Factory. At 21-pages long and with more than 250 options, it’s the textbook example of “choice overload.” That’s what happens when your brain faces an overwhelming number of similar options and struggles to make a decision.

Come on, choice is a good thing…right?

Depends who you ask. In 2016, a study conducted by Stanford GSB marketing professor Itamar Simonson found that people like having tons of options. But, Simonson also realized that how much they liked having a bigger selection depended on where they were in the “decision-making timeline.”

Per Simonson, a large selection appeals more to people deciding whether to buy at all. The pivotal factor? Which decision comes first.

“Every decision is really two decisions,” Simonson says. “If your first decision is about whether you want to buy, then having more options is conducive to buying. But if your first decision is on which specific product to select, then having a big assortment can make it more difficult to identify the best option.”

A more recent study by Caltech behavioral economics professor Colin Camerer has a different take on choice overload. Turns out, your brain actually has a preference of how many options to consider when making a choice.

Apparently, there are limits

In the study, volunteers looked at pictures of scenic landscapes that they could have printed on a piece of merchandise such as a coffee mug. Each person saw a variety of sets of images containing either six, 12, or 24 pictures. As they made their decisions, an fMRI machine recorded their brain activity.

The scans revealed brain activity in two regions while the participants made their choices: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), where the potential costs and benefits of decisions are weighed; and the striatum, a part of the brain responsible for determining value.

Camerer and his colleagues saw that activity in these two regions peaked when people had 12 options to pick from. But it dropped in those with either six or 24 items to choose from.

That pattern of activity, Camerer explains, is the result of the striatum and the ACC interacting and weighing the increasing potential for reward (getting a picture they like for their mug) against the increasing amount of work the brain will have to do to evaluate possible outcomes.

“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,” Camerer says. He estimates that the ideal number of options for a person is somewhere between 8 and 15.

The takeaway

Sure, we love having options and feel like choice equals freedom. But having near-endless alternatives comes with a hidden cost. “Essentially, our eyes are bigger than our stomachs,” Camerer says. “When we think about how many choices we want, we may not be mentally representing the frustrations of making the decision.”

Having fewer choices may benefit our mental health. But don’t expect companies to stop introducing new options anytime soon. The next time choice overload strikes while you’re wading through the Cheesecake Factory menu, try this technique. Open a page, close your eyes, and point. Bam! There’s your order. Then sit back and enjoy the bread basket in front of you. It only comes with two options, and both taste great.