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The real reason you can't decide what to have for lunch, according to science

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Moya Crockett
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If you’re a chronic menu ditherer, you’re not alone. A new study sheds light on what happens in our brain when we experience “choice overload”.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who know what they want to eat in a restaurant as soon as they’ve sat down, and those who can’t so much as order a sandwich without 10 minutes of dithering. The former group often find the latter infuriating: why can’t they just make up their minds already?! Those in the latter group, meanwhile, generally view the first lot as mystifyingly reckless. How can they possibly be so confident in their decisions?

Often, this kind of indecisiveness is linked to an abundance of choice. The more options we have, the more likely we are to feel confused and overwhelmed at the prospect of making the wrong decision. And once we have ordered our sushi/salad/steak, we’re liable to feel regretful – because we’re haunted by the thought of the many, many meals that could have been.

This phenomenon is referred to as “choice overload”, a term first introduced by writer Alvin Toffer in the Seventies. We often see it in action in restaurants, but it doesn’t just apply to food: we can also experience choice overload when trying to settle on a career path, or when choosing between several romantic partners. Over the last few years, the idea has been explored by many psychologists, notably Barry Schwartz in his influential 2004 book The Paradox of Choice.

Now, a study conducted at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has shed new light on what goes on in our brains when we experience choice overload – and may indicate what number of choices we feel most comfortable with. 

Does this sight bring you out in a cold sweat? 

Volunteers in the study were given pictures of landscapes and asked to choose one to 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. While they made their decisions, activity in their brains was recorded by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.

Researchers found that activity took place in two main regions of the brain while the volunteers made their choices: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is where we weigh up the potential costs and benefits of a decision, and the striatum, a part of the brain responsible for determining how valuable something is.

Interestingly, activity in these two brain regions was highest in volunteers who had 12 options to pick from – suggesting that 12 is a good number of choices to have when making this kind of decision. If you’re presented with a menu with 12 items, for example, you’ll probably feel confident that you can find at least one dish that you like – but you won’t feel overwhelmed with choice.

“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,” says Colin Camerer, a professor of behavioural economics at Caltech who led the study. 

She was furious that their meal sounded so much nicer than hers 

Camerer stresses that the findings of this study don’t mean that 12 is some kind of magic decision-making number; it’s just the number they happened to use in this experiment. Most people’s ideal number of options is probably somewhere between eight and 15, he says, depending on the situation and the person’s individual characteristics. (A previous study, by researchers at Bournemouth University, found that most people prefer menus with seven starters, 10 main courses and seven desserts when visiting fine dining establishments.)

So if you know that you’re prone to dithering when ordering in a restaurant, you could try going to places with fewer items on the menu, rather than more. 

Alternatively, you could lift the burden of choice off your shoulders entirely by sticking to restaurants that only offer tasting or set menus, or asking your dining companion to order for you (although that might feel a bit Mad Men if you’re out for dinner with a bloke).

Or – and this is just a thought – you could remember that there are far worse things in life than ordering the wrong dish, and embrace the thrill of trying something new. But that, friends, is up to you.

Images: Unsplash / Getty Images

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk, where she is currently overseeing the Visible Women campaign. As well as writing about inspiring women and feminism, she also covers subjects including careers, podcasts and politics. Carrying a tiny bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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