When was the last time you felt overwhelmed by choice? Perhaps it was selecting your lunch from a lengthy menu, or purchasing a new pair of jeans from a selection of over 50 in the store.
In some cases, more options can be helpful. But if faced with more options than a person can consider effectively, things can be much more difficult. It’s a phenomenon called choice overload, a topic explored in a new study from the University of Buffalo.
“My personal experiences sparked an initial interest in this area of study. I felt like everywhere I turned I was being presented with more options than I could reasonably consider. I rarely felt like I was picking the exact right option in these situations,” Thomas Saltsman, a graduate student in the UB Department of Psychology and co-author of the study, told Theravive.
“As I dug into the existent choice overload literature, I realized that much of the research studies examined people's feelings about their choice after-the-fact, but there wasn't a lot of research peering into their experiences and their motivations in the moment of choosing. I felt that tracking these experiences could be very important in gaining a full understanding of how choice overload actually works.”
Previous research has proven that choice overload can have negative outcomes for people, and the researchers from the University of Buffalo examined two previously understudied factors that motivated people in their decision making: the value of the decision to a person, and the degree to which they believed they were capable of making a good choice.
To explore this idea, the researchers enlisted 500 participants.
Participants were asked to view dating profiles (fictional for the purpose of the study) and to consider who would be their ideal partner.
“While doing so, we measured cardiovascular responses that broadly capture how much people valued the decision they were making, and how capable or confident they felt in their ability to make this decision. Compared to people who chose one profile from only a few options and to those who gave an overall rating of many profiles, people who had to choose one profile from many options exhibited cardiovascular responses suggesting that they cared more about their choice, but also felt incapable of making their decision. Differences in these responses emerged very early on in this process, both while people were initially looking through their options and while they were making their decision,” Saltsman said.
Among the measures the team used in the study, they examined heart rate and how hard the participants’ hearts were pumping. When participants cared more about making a particular decision, their heart rate increased and their heart also beat harder. The researchers were also able to use other cardiovascular measures like blood vessel dilation and how much blood the heart was pumping to determine levels of confidence.
They found that when participants were faced with a larger number of profiles to choose from, their cardiovascular measures indicated participants felt their choice was both more important and more overwhelming than the participants who were asked to choose a profile from a smaller selection.
“Our findings show that having too many choices seems to create a kind of paralyzing paradox in the moment, where people really seem to care more about their decision, but at the same time, feel like they can't make a good choice. This combination of perceiving high stakes and low ability may contribute to a deep-seated fear that one will inevitably make the wrong choice, which could stifle the decision-making process and could eventually lead to people regretting their choice after-the-fact,” Saltsman said.
Although having more choices might appear to be an appealing prospect, when you actually have to choose, the reality is very different.
But even if faced with a variety of options, Saltsman says there are ways to ensure choice overload doesn’t negatively impact you.
“It may help to remember that many of the day-to-day choices you make—what to have for lunch, what Netflix series to begin binging—are ultimately not going to define who you are as a person and are not going to make a huge impact in the grand scheme of things. Even if you do not select the absolute best show or best sandwich, these kinds of menial day-to-day choices will likely not be forever self-defining or life-changing. When thinking in this way, the consequences associated with making the “wrong” choice become less scary, as they are often less dire than we might initially believe,” he said.
“On top of this, it may also be helpful to enter high choice situations with just a few clear guidelines and ideas of what you want from your desired option. Doing so may not only help scale down the number of possible choices (by eliminating options that do not meet these clear guidelines), but may also bolster confidence and trust in your ability to find a choice that meets your needs. Consistent with this, research shows that entering high choice situations with greater confidence and certainty about ones’ preferences can reduce choice overload’s negative effects.”
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.