Scientists Uncover Why You Can’t Decide What to Order for Lunch
If you’ve ever found yourself staring at a lengthy restaurant menu and been completely unable to decide what to order for lunch, you have experienced what psychologists call choice overload. The brain, faced with an overwhelming number of similar options, struggles to make a decision.
A study conducted in California nearly 20 years ago is illustrative of the effect. In that study, researchers set up a table offering samples of jams to customers in a grocery store. At times, 24 jam samples were provided; at other times, only six. It turned out that although shoppers were more likely to stop and try samples when the table was jam-packed, they also were much less likely to actually purchase any jam. Shoppers were somewhat less likely to stop at the table when it had only six jams, but when they did, they were 10 times more likely to make a jam purchase than the customers at the fuller table.
Lunch entrees and fruit preserves might seem trivial, but choice overload can sometimes have serious consequences, says Colin Camerer, Caltech’s Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics and the T&C Chen Center for Social and Decision Neuroscience Leadership Chair. As an example, he points to Sweden’s partial privatization of its social security system. The government allowed citizens to move some of their retirement savings into private funds. The government gave them hundreds of funds from which to choose, and conducted a large advertising campaign encouraging them to make their own choice. At first, nearly 70 percent of the eligible adult population took an active role in choosing a fund, but the percentage quickly dropped off. After 10 years, only about 1 percent of newly eligible Swedes were making an active decision about where to put their retirement money.
Now, a study conducted at Caltech by Camerer reveals new insights into choice overload, including the parts of the brain responsible for it, and how many options the brain actually prefers when it is making a choice.
In the study, volunteers were presented with pictures of scenic landscapes that they could have printed on a piece of merchandise such as a coffee mug. Each participant was offered a variety of sets of images, containing six, 12, or 24 pictures. They were asked to make their decisions while a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine recorded activity in their brains. As a control, the volunteers were asked to browse the images again, but this time their image selection was made randomly by a computer.
The fMRI scans revealed brain activity in two regions while the participants were making their choices: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), where the potential costs and benefits of decisions are weighed, Camerer says; and the striatum, a part of the brain responsible for determining value.
Camerer and his colleagues also saw that activity in these two regions was highest in subjects who had 12 options to pick from, and lowest in those with either six or 24 items to choose from. Camerer says that pattern of activity is probably the result of the striatum and the ACC interacting and weighing the increasing potential for reward (getting a picture they really like for their mug) against the increasing amount of work the brain will have to do to evaluate possible outcomes.
Read Full artilce HERE. Source & Credit @ Caltech. The original artilce was wriiten by Emily Velasco.