Too many choices are hard on the brain

I’m a girl who likes her choices. On a recent shopping trip, I struggled between the Kelly green and bright

I’m a girl who likes her choices. On a recent shopping trip, I struggled between the Kelly green and bright yellow flats (they were $24; I bought one of each), and the dining options in my neighbourhood include Italian, Japanese, Thai, deli, French, Indian and countless others. Then there are the hundreds of guys I can search with the click of a mouse button on the Internet dating site I subscribe to, and my daily waffle between the latte and Americano when I pop into Starbucks. Suffice it to say I always keep my options open.

Well, as much as I enjoy all the variety, a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows it may actually be taking a toll on me mentally. More specifically, being faced with multiple choices – good or bad – can make it harder to stay focused on other tasks, even once a selection has been made.

Researchers from several American universities conducted a series of experiences involving nearly 400 people in a variety of settings. In the various experiments, some participants had to make a decision (about things like products, choosing courses, and so on), followed by a task, such as a math problem or having to drink a healthy but unpleasant-tasting drink. Those who had to make a choice prior to their task were more likely to get the math problem wrong and had greater difficulty staying on-task. Even making fun choices – for example, choosing gifts off a registry – appeared to take a toll.

“This pattern was found in the laboratory, classroom and shopping mall. Having to make the choice was the key,” said lead researcher Kathleen D. Vohs, PhD, in a press release.

“There is a significant shift in the mental programming that is made at the time of choosing, whether the person acts on it at that time or sometime in the future. Therefore, simply the act of choosing can cause mental fatigue,” says Vohs. “Making choices can be difficult and taxing, and there is a personal price to choosing.”

Given that choices are inevitable, what’s the solution? Well, in the case of the pleasurable choice, less time spent choosing translated into better results on the task. So next time I’m trying to decide between two things I want – such as those shoes – I guess for my mental health I’ll make it fast and get both. How’s that for justification?