We make thousands of tiny decisions, every day. Most are choices we might not even be aware of – whether to snooze our alarm clocks, what to wear that day or the route we take to work. According to a 2007 study by researchers from Cornell University, more than 200 of those daily decisions simply relate to what we eat. In fact, when you’re queuing up for your morning tall skinny latte, it’s worth bearing in mind you have subconsciously ruled out 79,999 other options as the coffee chain Starbucks claims to offer more than 80,000 drink combinations, based on flavours, cup size and ingredients.
Nowhere is that abundance of offerings more visible than in how we spend our money. Last year Amazon enjoyed its biggest ever Christmas retail bonanza, selling more than a billion items over the festive season.
With Christmas a few days away, online retail platforms around the world are enjoying their most profitable week of the year. According to Statista, e-commerce sales worldwide reached $2.3 trillion last year and projections indicate that it should more than double to $4.88 trillion within three years.
We are a long way from a post-Second World War world, where brand choices were restricted. And the convenience of e-commerce platforms means we don’t have to drive to a store or mall and can access hefty discounts online as well as choosing from an unprecedented selection of products in our own homes. But is that always a good thing from a commercial point of view?
Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, argues that too much choice can confound customers and leave them less satisfied with their purchases. And as appealing as having extensive options in retail or online stores might seem to us, having too many possibilities can also undermine our ability to make a decision, leading to what is often referred to as "decision paralysis".
What might seem like a modern phenomenon is, in fact, centuries old. Aristotle referred in 350BC, in his treatise titled On the Heavens, to the plight of man, who "although exceedingly hungry and thirsty, and both equally, yet being equidistant from food and drink, is therefore bound to stay where he is". The paradox was further articulated by the dilemma of Buridan's Ass, named after the 14th century French philosopher Jean Buridan and referring to the hypothetical story of a donkey at equal distances to hay and water but unable to decide which way to go, starves to death.
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A series of laboratory and field psychology experiments reinforced the idea that choice can prevent people from making decisions. According to a 2000 paper from US academics titled When choice is demotivating: can one desire too much of a good thing? two booths were placed in a grocery store, one with six jam flavours and another with 24. Despite more people stopping at the booth with a wider variety of flavours, it was the booth with a limited number that sold the most. In another experiment, students invited to write a two-page essay as an extra-credit assignment were more likely to do it if they were able to choose between six rather than 30 topics to write about.
So what is going on in our brains when we have to make difficult decisions? Is it our initial preferences that determine the outcome of our choices or do we adjust our decision based on context?
These questions were tackled by Dr Katharina Voigt and her co-authors at the Melbourne School of Psychology in Australia in a new study published last month in the Journal of Neuroscience. The scientists asked male and female volunteers to choose between snack foods. Functional neuroimaging revealed that the region of participants' brains involved in evaluation was active during the decision-making process. These findings hint at a real-time adjustment of preferences rather than selection being pre-determined by prior choices, as previously thought. Thanks to eye-tracking technology, the researchers found that a longer gaze at a snack predicted choice but also indicated a re-evaluation of items when asked after their decisions were made.
Unsolicited suggestions offered to us on online platforms like Netflix and Amazon are based on very little information when we first use them but over time, algorithms track and understand our preferences and are able to predict with greater accuracy what we might like. While that is useful in dealing with indecision, it also hinders random selection and the chance of stumbling on something out of curiosity. It might take away our hesitation but it also removes diversity from the equation, something which is equally beneficial for our brains. So the next time you are scratching your head, unable to make a decision, don’t be deterred. Your eventual selection might just lead you to open up a whole new area or interest worthy of exploration.
Professor Olivier Oullier is the president of Emotiv, a neuroscientist and a DJ