Study finds the sweet spot for menu choice to avoid ‘order anxiety’

2 Oct 2018

Image: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

Scientists have identified where in the brain that familiar ‘order anxiety’ comes from when presented with too much choice.

The science of choice has always fascinated researchers hoping to find root causes for the nature of our decisions, and whether we truly have free will or if everything is preordained.

20 years ago, one study wanted to find out what happened when you have too much choice and how it would affect your decisions in the supermarket. As it turned out, when two groups of shoppers were given the option between 24 different types of jam or six types, the latter group was 10 times more likely to buy one, despite there being less choice.

The sweet spot

This ties in with the familiar feeling of ‘order anxiety’ at a restaurant where, sometimes, having a huge choice can be overwhelming, increasing stress levels as you fail to decide what you want.

Now, new research conducted at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has managed to identify parts of the brain responsible for this overload, and even how many options the brain prefers when making a choice.

Published to Nature Human Behaviour, the study presented volunteers with pictures of scenic landscapes that they could have printed on a piece of merchandise such as a coffee mug. Each of the participants were offered a variety of image sets containing six, 12 or 24 pictures.

While they mulled over what image they wanted, the volunteers’ brain activity was recorded using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. Meanwhile, as a control, volunteers were asked to browse the images again, but this time their image selection was made randomly by a computer.

‘Essentially, our eyes are bigger than our stomachs’

The fMRI was able to locate activity in two regions during the selection process: the anterior cingulate cortex, where the potential costs and benefits of decisions are weighed; and the striatum, a part of the brain responsible for determining value.

As the number of options increased, the potential reward increased but, interestingly, it eventually reaches a point of diminishing returns.

“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,” said Colin Camerer, who led the research. Together, mental effort and the potential reward result in a sweet spot where the reward isn’t too low and the effort isn’t too high.

However, Camerer pointed out that this doesn’t mean that 12 is a ‘magic number’ of choice. Rather, it is actually somewhere between eight and 15, depending on the potential reward, difficulty of evaluating the options and the person’s individual characteristics.

“Essentially, our eyes are bigger than our stomachs,” he said. “When we think about how many choices we want, we may not be mentally representing the frustrations of making the decision.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic