I used to say that one of the best things about living in a city like Los Angeles is all the choices. Things to do, places to see, the possibilities are almost infinite. But I find myself increasingly going to the same places, doing the same things, and ordering the same dishes. If a trusted friend gives a glowing recommendation, maybe IÃ¢ÂÂll try it. But I rarely search for something new. Sad? Maybe. IÃ¢ÂÂm only one step away from those silver-haired people we all know who go to the same place every Friday night and order the same soft, bland food.
To many of us, that seems like a terribly boring existence. But the brain actually loathes choice and science tells us that those who limit their choices may be on to something. When was the last time you had to decide on one thing from a slew of choices? Maybe it was where to go on vacation, maybe what stocks to buy, perhaps what to do on a free Saturday afternoon. How did you feel when you started to consider your decision?
A world of choice can make us feel elatedÃ¢ÂÂ¦but only temporarily. As you collect more information and start to weigh your options, you grow overwhelmed.
Consider the relatively insignificant decision of what type of jam to buy. ResearchersÃÂ Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper used a simple experiment to show the effectÃÂ of too much choice. One day they offered shoppers at an upscale market 24 types of specialty jams, complete with free samples. About 3 percentÃÂ of people who tried a jam sample also purchased a full-size jar. Then, theyÃÂ cut back on choices and set up a table offering only six jams. About the same number of people tasted the jam, but of this group, 30 percentÃÂ purchased a jar. Sales increased tenfold by offering less choice.ÃÂ ÃÂ
More important than purchases, less choice results in happiness. It turns out that our confidence and satisfaction in our decisions is directly linked to our beliefs about them. Knowing something about the brain, I would bet that if Iyengar had asked, the people who were given less choice would have also said the jam they purchased tasted better.
It may seem counterintuitive that fewer choices lead to more sales and happier consumers, but Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, has shown why. To see how the brain reacts to information overload, she asked study participants to solve a complex problem, then added more pieces of information while watching their brains with anÃÂ fMRI scanner.
As the brain took in more information, the prefrontal cortex (the region responsible for strategic planning and decision-making) became more and more active. This is what we would expect. But hereÃ¢ÂÂs the kicker: at a certain point, the participants simply couldnÃ¢ÂÂt handle any more information, and their prefrontal cortexes went dark. Like an overloaded circuit, the brain simply shuts down when presented with too much information. Information overload, it seems, is a real phenomenon in our brains.
Making good, rational choices is emotionally taxing. We are happiest when weÃ¢ÂÂre sure that the alternatives are worse, when weÃ¢ÂÂre sure we arenÃ¢ÂÂt missing out on something better. But itÃ¢ÂÂs hard to be sure about the right choice when there are too many options. Things just get, well, jammy.
Business owners should resist the temptation to show off everything imaginable. Amazon is already the Ã¢ÂÂeverything storeÃ¢ÂÂ so differentiating as the Ã¢ÂÂonly what you need storeÃ¢ÂÂ seems like a pretty good plan.
If our businesses arenÃ¢ÂÂt willing to use their brainpower to limit choice, then as consumers, we all need to exercise our own mental muscles. If you are given too many choices, narrow the field quickly, using a superficial gut reaction. Then spend time on a final decision across a manageable set of options. In the end, the grass may have been greener, but the jam will taste just as good.
Jeff Stibel is the former CEO of Web.com and vice chairman of Dun & Bradstreet, a partner of Bryant Stibel and an entrepreneur who also happens to be a brain scientist. ÃÂ He is the USA TODAYÃÂ bestselling author of "Breakpoint" and "Wired for Thought." Follow him on Twitter at @stibel.ÃÂ
The views and opinions expressed in this column are the authorÃ¢ÂÂs and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.