Do you struggle to make a choice when faced with many similar options — at the grocery store, for instance, or when placing an order at a restaurant? This is called “choice overload,” and one new study explains how it works and why it happens.

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Why is choosing so difficult? A new study takes a look at what happens in the brain.

When faced with several choices — particularly if they are quite similar to one another, such as an array of soaps from many different brands — we tend to find it difficult to pick one.

We might even give up and walk away without having chosen at all.

Researchers are intrigued by the mechanisms at play in these kinds of situations since, intuitively, we enjoy the sense of freedom that comes with having many options to choose from.

Nevertheless, this “freezing” effect when daunted by the sheer amount of choices is real enough — and specialists have even given it a name: the “choice overload” effect.

A famous study conducted in 2000 demonstrated what the choice overload effect looks like. That study’s researchers — Profs. Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper — conducted an experiment in which they set up a table of jam samples in a grocery store.

In one variant of this experiment, the scientists offered up to 24 different options for customers to sample. In another variant, they only offered up six types of jam for sampling.

Profs. Iyengar and Lepper then found something intriguing: although people were more likely to stop by their stand and sample jam when offered many different choices, they were unlikely to purchase any of them.

However, when there were fewer options, fewer customers were likely to stop by — but the individuals were 10 times more likely to make a purchase.

Now, Prof. Colin Camerer and colleagues — from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena — publish the results of a study that dives deeper into how the choice overload effect translates inside the brain, and what the ideal number of options might be.

The researchers’ study paper now appears in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

In the recent study, the investigators showed the participants pictures of attractive landscapes with which they could choose to personalize a mug or some other item.

Participants had to choose an image from a set offering six, 12, or 24 choices, all while undergoing functional MRI brain scans.

According to the scans, participants showed heightened brain activity in two specific regions while making their choices — namely, in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is linked to decision-making, and in the striatum, which is linked to assessing value.

The researchers also found that these brain areas were the most active in participants who chose from sets of 12 images, and that they were the least active in participants who had had to choose from either six or 24 pictures.

Prof. Camerer thinks that this might be due to the interaction between the striatum and the anterior cingulate cortex, as they weigh up the reward potential — a good picture to personalize the items with — and the amount of effort that the brain had to put in to evaluate potential outcomes in the case of each given option.

The more options there are, the potential reward may increase — but so too does the amount of invested effort, which may diminish the ultimate value of that reward.

“The idea is,” explains Prof. Camerer, “that the best out of 12 is probably rather good, while the jump to the best out of 24 is not a big improvement.”

In order for the choice overload effect to be avoided, Prof. Camerer points out, there needs to be a good balance between the potential reward and the amount of effort required to obtain it.

He thinks that the ideal number of options for somebody to pick from is most likely somewhere between eight and 15, depending on the perceived value of the reward, the effort required to assess the options, and each individual’s personal traits.

If our brains are more comfortable with weighing up fewer choices, why, then, do we prefer to have more options to choose from? For instance, why do we tend to value a grocery store based on the wealth of options that it presents?

“Essentially, [that is because] our eyes are bigger than our stomachs,” says Prof. Camerer, adding:

When we think about how many choices we want, we may not be mentally representing the frustrations of making the decision.”

The next step on from the new study, he says, is to try to assess the actual mental costs that are embedded in the process of decision-making.

“What is mental effort? What does thinking cost? It’s poorly understood,” says Prof. Camerer.