This Is The Real Reason You're So Indecisive — And How To Break The Cycle

Image by Jack Sorokin

"What do you want for dinner?" is perhaps one of the most dreaded questions in our household (well, that and "Is this cat puke?"). Something about a day packed with work obligations and hustling from one child activity to the next brings about all of the indecision when it comes to deciding what to put on our evening plates.

Turns out, there's actually a biological explanation behind that familiar indecisiveness. Two regions of your brain that deal with decision-making—the anterior cingulate cortex and the striatum—actually start to short circuit as the number of options you need to choose from increases, a new study finds. And there's even a projected sweet spot for the optimal number of choices it can handle: somewhere in the range of eight to 15.

"Choice overload" is an actual thing that happens when humans are presented with too many options, says Colin Camerer, Ph.D., a Caltech behavioral economics professor and one of the study authors, in a news release. The effect became evident in a study conducted nearly 20 years ago where shoppers were presented with multiple options of jam to buy and had a more difficult time making a selection when there were 24 options as opposed to six.

Now, choosing between strawberry and blueberry jam seems pretty inconsequential in the big scheme of things, but Dr. Camerer points out that choice overload in other instances might lead to more serious consequences than a less-than-satisfactory PB&J. Take, for example, Sweden's partial privatization of its social security system in the early 2000s. The government provided citizens with hundreds of private fund options to consider, but fast-forward 10 years and only 1 percent of Swedish citizens were making final decisions about where their retirement money should go.

This, Dr. Camerer says, points at the larger issue—options offer power if and only if they lead to people making decisions.

For that reason, Dr. Camerer and his team set out to better understand what's going on in the brain when taxed by too many options. The researchers gave study participants pictures of scenic landscapes from which they could select one and have it printed on a piece of merchandise, like a coffee mug. Each person was offered various sets of images, containing six, 12, or 24 photos. While under observation of a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, they were asked to make a singular choice in various scenarios, including one where their image options were randomly decided by a computer.

During all of this decision making, the scientists noticed two areas of the brain light up: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), where the brain weighs costs and benefits of potential decisions, and the striatum, the part of the brain responsible for determining value. The activity in these two parts peaked when presented with 12 options and then crashed downward when more choices were available. Dr. Camerer hypothesized that these decision-making regions get more active with more choices (six vs. 12) because of the excitement of being able to select a mug they'd really like, but they then begin to give up once too many choices become available (12 vs. 24) because it would take too much work to actually evaluate every single one of the potential outcomes.

"Essentially, our eyes are bigger than our stomachs," Dr. Camerer says. "When we think about how many choices we want, we may not be mentally representing the frustrations of making the decision."

It should be noted that the number 12 was just an arbitrary number used for the experiment. Dr. Camerer estimates that the real ideal number of choices will be anywhere between eight and 15 options, "depending on the perceived reward, the difficulty of evaluating the options, and the person's individual characteristics."

The take-away here is that, when it comes to making big decisions, too much choice really can be a bad thing. If you want to avoid indecisiveness when faced with a decision, try to limit yourself to a reasonable number of options before you start doing the heavy evaluating work that involves a lot of brain power. There are also a plethora of natural tricks to help boost your brain's decision-making abilities: Consider doing a short meditation, taking a walk, or even taking a quick power nap, all of which have been proven to help you better digest info and therefore nix indecision.

So what's for dinner tonight, you ask? Ask me in 20 minutes—I'm off to take a snooze.

Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Kelly LeVeque.

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