Too many choices -- good or bad -- can be mentally exhausting

April 14, 2008

Each day, we are bombarded with options -- at the local coffee shop, at work, in stores or on the TV at home. Do you want a double-shot soy latte, a caramel macchiato or simply a tall house coffee for your morning pick-me-up" Having choices is typically thought of as a good thing. Maybe not, say researchers who found we are more fatigued and less productive when faced with a plethora of choices.

Researchers from several universities have determined that even though humans’ ability to weigh choices is remarkably advantageous, it can also come with some serious liabilities. People faced with numerous choices, whether good or bad, find it difficult to stay focused enough to complete projects, handle daily tasks or even take their medicine.

These findings appear in the April issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which is published by the American Psychological Association.

Researchers conducted seven experiments involving 328 participants and 58 consumers at a shopping mall. In the laboratory experiments, some participants were asked to make choices about consumer products, college courses or class materials. Other participants did not have to make decisions but simply had to consider the options in front of them.

The scientists then asked each group to participate in one of two unpleasant tasks. Some were told to finish a healthy but ill-tasting drink (akin to taking ones medicine). Other participants were told to put their hands in ice water. The tasks were designed to test how the previous act of choosing, or not choosing, affected peoples’ ability to stay on task and maintain behaviors aimed at reaching a goal.

Researchers found that the participants who earlier had made choices had more trouble staying focused and finishing the disagreeable but goal-focused tasks compared to the participants who initially did not have to make choices.

In other experiments, participants were given math problems to practice for an upcoming test. The participants who had to make important choices involving coursework spent less time solving the math problems and more time engaging in other distractions such as playing video games or reading magazines, compared to participants who were not asked to make choices prior to that point. The participants who made choices also got more math problems wrong than participants not faced with decisions.

To further buttress their laboratory findings, the researchers conducted a field test at a shopping mall. The shoppers reported how much decision-making they had done while shopping that day and then were asked to solve simple arithmetic problems. The researchers found that the more choices the shoppers had made earlier in the day, the worse they performed on the math problems. The authors note they controlled for how long the participants had been shopping, and for several demographic categories such as age, race, ethnicity and gender.

Kathleen D. Vohs, PhD, the study’s lead author and a member of the University of Minnesota’s marketing department, concluded that making choices apparently depletes a precious resource within the human mind. “Maintaining one’s focus while trying to solve problems or completing an unpleasant task was much harder for those who had made choices compared to those who had not,” says Vohs. “This pattern was found in the laboratory, classroom and shopping mall. Having to make the choice was the key. It did not matter if the researchers told them to make choices, or if it was a spontaneously made choice, or if making the choice had consequences or not.”

But what about making fun choices" How does that affect our mental acuity" In their last experiment, researchers determined that making a few enjoyable decisions, such as spending four minutes selecting items for a gift registry, was shown to be less mentally draining than when participants spent 12 minutes doing the same task. In other words, even if people are having fun making decisions, their cognitive functions are still being depleted with every choice they make.

Vohs says these experiments provide evidence that making choices, as opposed to just thinking about options, is what is especially taxing. “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.”

Source: American Psychological Association

Explore further: Descriptive phrases for how often food should be eaten helps preschoolers better understand healthy eating

Related Stories

Descriptive phrases for how often food should be eaten helps preschoolers better understand healthy eating

February 22, 2018
Approximately one in four preschoolers in the US are overweight or obese, and poor nutrition in early childhood has enduring consequences to children's cognitive functioning. Preschool, therefore, is a critical period for ...

Antidepressants are more effective than placebo at treating acute depression in adults, concludes study

February 22, 2018
Meta-analysis of 522 trials includes the largest amount of unpublished data to date, and finds that antidepressants are more effective than placebo for short-term treatment of acute depression in adults.

Sweet, bitter, fat: New study reveals impact of genetics on how kids snack

February 22, 2018
Whether your child asks for crackers, cookies or veggies to snack on could be linked to genetics, according to new findings from the Guelph Family Health Study at the University of Guelph.

Patients with advanced cancer may be less competent to make decisions than doctors think

February 21, 2018
Patients with terminal cancer face difficult decisions. What treatment options support their goals? When is it reasonable to discontinue care? A study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry shows that these ...

Learning to make healthy choices can counter the effects of large portions

January 25, 2018
People are often told that eating everything in moderation can help them lose weight, but it is better to choose healthier foods than to try to eat less, according to Penn State researchers.

Pride tops guilt as a motivator for environmental decisions

February 13, 2018
A lot of pro-environmental messages suggest that people will feel guilty if they don't make an effort to live more sustainably or takes steps to ameliorate climate change. But a recent study from Princeton University finds ...

Recommended for you

Young children use physics, not previous rewards, to learn about tools

February 23, 2018
Children as young as seven apply basic laws of physics to problem-solving, rather than learning from what has previously been rewarded, suggests new research from the University of Cambridge.

Study: Tinder loving cheaters—dating app facilitates infidelity

February 23, 2018
The popular dating app Tinder is all about helping people form new relationships. But for many college-aged people, it's also helping those in relationships cheat on their romantic partners.

Looking for the origins of schizophrenia

February 23, 2018
Schizophrenia may be related to neurodevelopmental changes, including brain's inability to generate an appropriate vascular system, according to new study resulted from a partnership between the D"Or Institute for Research ...

Color of judo uniform has no effect on winning

February 22, 2018
New research on competitive judo data finds a winning bias for the athlete who is first called, regardless of the colour of their uniform. This unique study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, puts to rest the debate on ...

Infants are able to learn abstract rules visually

February 22, 2018
Three-month-old babies cannot sit up or roll over, yet they are already capable of learning patterns from simply looking at the world around them, according to a recent Northwestern University study published in PLOS One.

How people cope with difficult life events fuels development of wisdom, study finds

February 21, 2018
How a person responds to a difficult life event such as a death or divorce helps shape the development of their wisdom over time, a new study from Oregon State University suggests.

5 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Zig158
5 / 5 (1) Apr 15, 2008
So this explains why Apple computers are becoming more popular, people want less choice. To fend off all you pod people I'm kidding, mostly.
Egnite
not rated yet Apr 15, 2008
Too many choices may seem daunting and mentally exhausting to start but the more you make the decisions, the better you become at them. So imo the majority of adults should know their own likes and dislikes and making choices should come easy to them as they are to me.
rrrn
5 / 5 (1) Apr 15, 2008
My former boss permanently complained that I did not enough tasks in parallel. So this study is very important for me. Thank you.
AJW
not rated yet Apr 15, 2008
Choice requires tracking and monitoring
unless some immediate action completes a
choice. Tracking and monitoring requires
short-term memory in addition to "normal"
usage for sensory input, response and
processing. That is what is being
referred to when someone says, "Today's
complex life (and getting more complex)
is exhausting." There are many examples
of human behavior that ajust for this
"short-coming": routine habit, passive
behavior, vacation planned by another,
relaxation, games (with rules), dance,
music, and ritual, as well as less
positive ones like not taking
responsibility for a decision; that is,
act on a decision and pretend one did
not make it.
Drumguy
not rated yet Apr 15, 2008
This is why I don't eat at Subway: Six inch or footlong? Which of 10 bread varieties?
What toppings (never mind that there's no list to choose from)? I've spent all morning making decisions; I just want a sandwich!
And don't get me started on Tall, Grande, and Vente-I want a small, medium, or large, without having to translate first.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.