Tinder is always exciting at first. But as your thumb grows exhausted from swiping left, you may feel the tide start to turn. All those choices, once invigorating, suddenly feel like too much to handle. The authors of a new study on that phenomenon, published in Nature Human Behavior, have a name for the overwhelming sensation: They call it it “choice overload.”
Axel Lindner, Ph.D., a neurobiologist at the Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research and study co-author, explains that having many choices may feel enthralling because they represent the possibility of finding a perfect match, but they’re also a double-edged sword. “I agree that a large variety of choices is appealing on one hand,” Lindner tells Inverse, “but if you have to waste your time choosing between options that are marginally different then it takes too much energy.”
“If you’re overloaded with all of these different options there’s really a flood,” he continues. “It takes so much effort, and the effort discounts the value of what you eventually get.”
Previous psychology studies and market research in the 1970s have described the phenomenon of “choice overload” or “analysis paralysis,” but Lindner’s work gives us a better sense of what actually happens in our brains when we’re faced with too many options. His experiment combined brain imaging with a traditional choice experiment to figure out where our brains naturally draw the line between enough choice and too much choice.
In the experiments, Lindner and a team gave 19 volunteers sets of six, 12, or 24 of nice-looking landscapes to choose from. The subjects were told to pick their favorite image, and the researchers would have it printed for them on a t-shirt or a mug. While the volunteers browsed the images in an online library, the team took fMRI scans of their brains to identify what was going on during their shopping experience.
The brain scans revealed a delicate balancing act between two areas of the brain: the dorsal striatum and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Previous studies have shown that the dorsal striatum helps integrate emotional and factual information to help choose an appropriate action and then initiate it. The ACC, in turn, seems to play a role in estimating how cognitively or physically taxing it will be to obtain a reward, as past animal studies have shown.
Lindner’s analysis of the brain scans in the study suggests that these two areas work in conjunction to produce a “value signal,” which in turn helps us determine what number of items will allow a person to balance effort and reward. In the case of Tinder, the question is: How many people do I have to swipe through in order to find an acceptable match but also avoid feeling weary of swiping? Whatever that number is, Lindner explains, can have a large impact on how strongly the brain’s “value signal” comes through.
When participants were presented with only six different image options, both of the brain regions in question showed low levels of activity. This suggested that although there was little work to do choice-wise (low effort), there also probably wasn’t a high likelihood of getting a mug with a nice photo (a big reward). But for participants dealing with 24 options, the two brain regions also showed low levels of activity, suggesting that the balance of brain activity had tipped in the opposite direction: Choosing between all those landscapes in search of the perfect picture just wasn’t worth the work.
“If you have to put too much effort into something, people are no longer happy,” Lindner says. “People are insecure. Was this the right choice?Sometimes they don’t choose anything.”
Eventually, the researchers identified a sweet spot: When faced with 12 images, participants showed high activity in both brain regions, which corresponded with a strong “value signal.” The number 12 could change in different contexts, but the fact it exists points to the idea that there is a neural tipping point at which choice becomes paralyzing. Here lies the value of a good recommendation, says Lindner. It’s a way to cut through the noise of too many options.
“When I arrived at Caltech for my post-doc, there were hundreds of retirement funds we could choose between. I had a hard time deciding — I had no clue,” he adds. “I was very happy because at the time Caltech provided some recommendations. We can see this everywhere.”
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