The Paradox of Choice

Posted on October 3, 2018

In a previous study, customers in a grocery store were faced with the option of either 6 or 24 samples of jam. The results showed that when shoppers were faced with a table full of jam samples (the 24-samples condition), they were more likely to stop and try the samples. However, they were also less likely to purchase any jam. The opposite findings occurred for the 6-samples condition – though shoppers were less likely to stop and try samples, they were also 10x more likely to make a purchase when they did. This illustrates the effect of choice overload – with too many choices, people sometimes find it so difficult to make a choice that they simply do not make any choice.

A study at Caltech revealed the brain regions involved in choice overload and the optimal number of choices for the brain to process.
In this study, participants were divided into 3 groups differing on how many pictures of scenery were offered to them – 6, 12 or 24 pictures – and asked to pick one picture to be printed. fMRI scans of their brain activity while choosing between the pictures were taken and it highlighted brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the striatum – the former region is responsible for weighing the pros and cons of a decision, whereas the latter region is responsible for determining the value of that decision.

The brain imaging scans also showed that the highest activity in both regions occurred for participants in the 12-pictures condition.
With an increasing number of options, the potential reward increases as well – but begins to plateau, especially when met with an increasing cognitive load having to do with assessing more options.

In the 12-picture condition, the cognitive effort needed to appraise the options combine with the level of potential reward to result in a cognitive ‘sweet spot’ where the effort required isn’t too much and the reward isn’t too low.

However, it should be worth nothing that this is not conclusive evidence that 12 is the exact optimal number of choices at any one point – rather, the lead researcher believed that the optimal number should lie somewhere in the range of 8 to 15 choices, but also dependent on other variables such as perceived reward, cognitive ease or difficulty in assessing the options available and individual differences in traits.


Category(s):Other, Stress Management

Source material from Medical Xpress


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