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The Ideal Number of Choices to Avoid Overload & Offer the Best Decision-Making Experience

It’s happened to me when buying shirts and shoes, and it happens in the supermarket, too.

Maybe it’s happened to you at a restaurant, buying bath towels, or while deciding on life-insurance.

Whatever the decision to be made, businesses offer a variety of choices because consumers do want options. 

However, research has shown time and again that too many choices leads to a kind of shut-down, an inability to decide. Yet, too few choices leads to dissatisfaction.

Is there an ideal number of choices?

In a recent study published in the journal Nature, *neuroscientists investigated the covert mental processes during  the process of decision-making. They “explored choice overload by using using functional magnetic resonance imaging while subjects were either choosing from varying-sized choice sets or were browsing them.”

The sets were of 6, 12 or 24 items and what the researchers found was that brain activity in the striatum and anterior cingulate cortex was highest when subjects were browsing or choosing from 12-item sets. A set of six offered to few options and a set of 24 was deemed too large.

In an interview with ScienceDaily, one of the researchers, Colin Camerer, Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics at Caltech and the Leadership Chair of T&C Chen Center for Social and Decision Neuroscience, said that while 12 appeared to be the right size in the study, in real life the best possible options for a set to choose from would probably be between 8 to 14 items, depending on a variety of factors such as: “the perceived reward, the difficulty of evaluating the options, and the person’s individual characteristics.”

How To Decide

One of the most successful products is the iPhone. Most versions offer only three color-finish options. Many people, however, use cases for their phones, and there are many more designs to choose from.

But the iPhone might be the exception to the rule. Automobiles, cereal brands, and even other cell phones (yes, they exist) offer numerous options, often using the buzz-words “customize” or “personalize,” although really there is no personalizing going on–just more complex choices to be made.

What’s the best way to make a decision when choosing a product?


Decide what yours are.

Here’s a list of some possible priorities that can be applied to a wide range of product choices (some more than others.)

List your top three or top five and that will help you narrow down almost any decision.



Convenience/Easy to purchase and/or upgrade

Convenience/Easy to use





Customer Support


*Elena Reutskaja, Axel Lindner, Rosemarie Nagel, Richard A. Andersen, Colin F. Camerer. Choice overload reduces neural signatures of choice set value in dorsal striatum and anterior cingulate cortex. Nature Human Behaviour, 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41562-018-0440-2


The Ideal Number of Choices to Avoid Overload & Offer the Best Decision-Making Experience

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2018). The Ideal Number of Choices to Avoid Overload & Offer the Best Decision-Making Experience. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 8 Oct 2018
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