People faced with more options than they can consider want to make a good decision, but feel they’re unable, according to the results of a new study.

Despite the apparent opportunities presented by a lot of options, the need to choose creates a “paralyzing paradox,” according to Thomas Saltsman, a graduate student in the University of Buffalo Department of Psychology and co-author of the study with Dr. Mark Seery, an associate professor of psychology at UB.

“You want to make a good choice, but feel like you can’t,” he said. “This combination of perceiving high stakes and low ability may contribute to a deep-seated fear that one will inevitably make the wrong choice, which could stifle the decision-making process.”

The sheer number of choices we are faced with daily is overwhelming. Searching online for a jacket can return thousands of hits. One streaming service claims to offer more than 7,000 titles, while online dating services can enroll millions of subscribers.

According to Seery, all of those choices seems like a great idea — until you’re actually the one having to choose.

“We love having these choices, but when we’re actually faced with having to choose from among those countless options, the whole process goes south,” he said.

“Research shows that, after the fact, people often regret their decision in these cases, but what our research suggests is that this kind of turn — the inherent paradox of liking choices and then being troubled by choices — happens almost immediately.”

“That transition is fascinating,” he said.

To manage the seemingly unmanageable, Saltsman advises to consider the relative importance of the choice at hand.

“Choosing the wrong menu item for dinner or what to binge-watch is not going to define you as a person,” he said. “It may also be helpful to enter high-choice situations with a few clear guidelines of what you want from your desired option. Doing so may not only help scale down the number of possible choices, by eliminating options that do not meet your guidelines, but may also bolster confidence and trust in your ability to find a choice that meets your needs.”

While previous research has clearly shown how choice overload is associated with negative outcomes, this new research looks specifically at two understudied motivational factors of decision-making: How valuable is the decision to someone and to what extent do people view themselves as capable of making a good choice, he explained.

For the research, the researchers recruited nearly 500 participants across three different experiments.

“We had participants reading through what were fictional dating profiles and asked them to consider their ideal partner,” Saltsman said. “Because we used psychophysiological measures, we wanted people faced with a choice that demanded consideration and had them actively engaged.”

Those psychophysiological measures included heart rate and how hard the heart is pumping. When people care more about a decision, their heart rate increases and beats harder, Seery said.

Other measures, like how much blood the heart is pumping and the degree to which blood vessels dilate, indicate levels of confidence, he added.

TThe study was published in the journal Biological Psychology.

Source: University at Buffalo