Choice Overload: Why is it so Hard to Choose?

November 28, 2018 by Yoojin Cho


Walking into a cafe, a familiar scene unfolds before us: a number of open-mouthed, wide-eyed people standing still nearby the cashier, staring into the menu as they try hard to choose a drink. It takes quite a while, perhaps even several minutes, for them to finally settle on one drink and break free from their frozen state. All of us face such situations every day, whether it be choosing a drink to order, shopping for clothes, or even deciding which emoticon to send to your friend. The number of things to choose from is overwhelming, and sometimes it’s just much too hard to choose one. These overabundances of options have led to the recently-coined humorous term Koreans like to use: “gyul-jung jang-eh,” which roughly translates to ‘a person with choosing disabilities.’ But why exactly is choosing from a large array of things so hard? What happens in the brain that makes us stand open-mouthed in front of the menu for so long?

Researchers are intrigued by these situations since, intuitively, we’re supposed to enjoy the sense of freedom that comes with having many options to choose from. They have even given this puzzling situation a name: the “choice overload effect,” and have conducted a great deal of research in order to better understand exactly what this is all about, and why this occurs.

One notable study conducted in 2000 gives a clear depiction of what the choice overload effect looks like. Professors Sheena Lyengar and Mark Lepper from Stanford University conducted an experiment in which they set up two different tables of jam samples at a grocery store and observed which table customers were more likely to buy a jam from. One table had 24 different kinds of jam, and the other had only 6 kinds. The result was fascinating - although people were more likely to stop by the stand that had a greater variety of choices, they were, in fact, more likely to purchase from the stand that had less.

A study conducted this year gives a psychological explanation of how and why this happens. Professor Colin Camerer and his colleagues from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena published the results of a study that delves deeper into how the choice overload effect manifests itself inside the brain. In the study, participants were shown pictures of landscapes that they could choose from to personalize a mug. They had to choose just one from three different situations, each respectively offering 6, 12, and 24 choices, while their brains were simultaneously MRI-scanned. According to the scans, when making their decisions, people showed an increase in brain activity in two regions: the anterior cingulate cortex, which is related to decision-making, and the striatum, which helps assess value. As a participant goes through each picture to decide which one to choose, the two regions interact with each other and weigh the value of the picture – whether it’s a good picture to decorate their mug with – against the amount of effort the brain has to give to assess the value of it. The more options there are, the potential reward of being able to get a better picture for their mug increases, but so too does the amount of effort put in, which diminishes the ultimate value of that reward. In the study, the midpoint of the balance between the potential reward and the invested effort was 12 images, which is made evident by the fact that when 12 options were given, the most number of participants were able to decide on a picture. Thus, when we are given more than the right amount of things to choose from, our brain fails to balance the two sides of value and effort and is thereby unable to make a decision, causing the choice overload effect.

Now that we understand the mechanism behind our inability to make a selection from the wide array of choices we face every day, we mustn’t be so hard on ourselves for not being able to make these seemingly simple decisions. In fact, they aren’t so simple after all – our brain is burdened with the process of millions of interactions between two different regions every time we assess the aptness of each option. So the next time you walk into a cafe and see someone hogging the cashier, taking forever to choose their drinks, don’t get frustrated. There’s more to the decision than meets the eye!

The UIC Scribe was founded in 2006 as the official student-run newsmagazine of Underwood International College. It celebrates diversity of thinking, excellence in writing, and the freedom of self-expression.