Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Too Many Choices

By Tim Hannan

Decisions are most easily made when the right number of options are available.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Much of everyday human behaviour involves making decisions, whether it is selecting between possible solutions to problems at work or deciding what to eat for lunch. It’s often assumed that having a greater number of options from which to choose is always to be preferred. However, research has found that when too many options are present, people experience “choice overload” and have difficulty coming to a decision. A new study by a team from Caltech has highlighted the neural mechanisms underlying aspects of decision-making, and proposed that making good decisions requires having the right number of options – not too many, and not too few.

Prior research into decision-making has established that people’s behaviour is influenced by the number of possible options. One study involved researchers setting up a table of jam samples in a grocery store, and inviting customers to both taste and purchase a jar. On some occasions six samples were displayed, and on others 24 varieties. When six samples were displayed, customers were around ten times more likely to make a purchase than when 24 options were available – even though they were more likely to stop and sample when the larger number of options was displayed.

The results of this and other studies have been interpreted as evidence that decision-making can be negatively impacted by having too many choices: the...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.