Fooling Houdini

Magic, Science, and the Mind

All You Can Eat

Variety is no longer the spice of life. It's the meal.

Pasta salad. Anti-pasta salad. Macaroni salad. Mixed salad. Butter chips. Kung Pao chicken and veggie lo-mein in a small Chinese area. Fruit salad. Jell-O salad. Fan pudding, crab salad. Collard greens. Mottled mac-n-cheese. Fried chicken, fried fish. A dessert island with a section for diet desserts. Dinner rolls. Breadsticks. Saltines. Garlic Bread. Corn on the cob. Cornbread. Corn dogs. Hushpuppies. Glazed carrots. Charbroiled hamburgers with onions and Swiss cheese. Sausage and peppers. A turkey carver and a pasta chef. Roast beef. BBQ Beef. French fries. Wedge fries. Mashed potatoes with gravy. Potatoes au gratin. A taco bar with two different varieties of meat. Radioactive-looking cheese enchiladas. Refried beans. A kitchen-sink type dish labeled, FEAST. A glassy lemon-butter salmon. An unwelcoming bouillabaisse.

I was at the buffet in the Palace Station Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas redeeming a meal voucher I’d won after losing $200 at craps. (I was in Vegas for a week-long workshop on coin magic.) Halfway into my third helping everything started to taste the same. Smell the same. Look the same. A few feet away, a morbidly obese man was shoveling something I pegged for Waldorf salad into a bowl beneath the sneeze guard. All around me, glazed and medicated faces at their meals. Cheesecake. German Chocolate Cake. Chocolate pie. Cupcakes. Cannoli. Soft-serve ice cream. Sugar-free fudge brownies. I glanced down at the alp of food on my own plate, trying to remember what I was eating. Did I ask for Bolognese or vodka sauce on my linguine? Was that Italian or thousand island on my salad?

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It’s not all you want to eat. Or all you may eat. Or all you choose to eat. It’s all you can eat. It’s how many rounds you can go before someone stops the fight. I’ve always read an implicit challenge into the all-you-can-eat buffet in Vegas, because it’s the one wager in which the house doesn’t always win, provided you can swallow enough food and drink sufficiently-many beverages to tip the economies of scale in your favor.

Vegas buffets have become a destination in and of themselves, the all-you-can-eat experience an attraction on a par with the Bellagio’s dancing fountains or Donnie & Marie. The longest one, at the Rio—where the innovating conjuring duo Penn & Teller perform—runs over 100 feet and boasts 300 different dishes. (And yet, I recently read the blog of a popular online foodie who crabbed, “I’ve yet to find a Las Vegas buffet that…offered sufficient variety.” I mean…)

As a nation, perhaps as a species, we’re obsessed with choices. From the moment we’re given that 64-count box of crayons in grade school, we’re conditioned to love variety, a penchant we carry with us like a communion ring through everything from selecting wedding gowns to stocks to coffins. We worship at the altar of choice with chiliastic zeal, having apparently confused it with the very notion of a free society—and free will. Increasingly, variety is an end in itself, the punch line, the moral of the story, more central to our lives than the things themselves. In the land of twenty-seven different types of milk and fifteen separate kinds of honey, variety is no longer the spice of life. It’s the meal.

But do more options make for smarter decisions? Does having an abundance of choices genuinely enrich our lives and make us freer? The evidence suggests otherwise. A study of consumption patterns in grocery stores found that sample stands with 24 different flavors of jam drew larger crowds than those with only six flavors. (Where free samples are concerned, we’re all pro-choice.) But come checkout time, shoppers were ten times more likely to make a purchase if they chose from the smaller assortment. Research on company-sponsored 401K packages reveals a similar trend. A wider menu of investment options actually reduces the likelihood that workers will enroll in retirement plans. (What’s more, a multitude of options tends to reduce a person's overall level of satisfaction once their decision has been made.) In real life, things are often easier when we have fewer choices.

Not only that, but making lots of choices is exhausting, both physically and mentally. Experiments have shown that a raft of decision-making reduces mental acuity, self-control—one’s ability to resist bad buffet food, say—and even physical stamina. This may be why, as one study suggests, judges make better decisions in the morning, when they’re fresh, than they do later in the day, when “decision fatigue,” as psychologists sometimes call it, begins to set in. Marketers and salespeople, meanwhile, can exploit decision fatigue to boost their bottom lines. It’s been found, for instance, that car dealers can trick their customers into spending up to $2,000 more on a new car by offering them lots of fatigue-inducing options before pitching them big-ticket add-ons. (OK, one last question: do you want the full-gloss undercoating?)

In a society engineered around experience consumerism, we encounter a buffet of options by the hour, choices nested within choices. But are all these options enriching our lives or merely draining our mental, physical, and financial capacities? As I stumbled out of the casino in a level-5 food coma, I wondered who’d gotten the better deal in this particular transaction. If even a relatively small number of choices impairs our judgment and saps our strength, what sort of decision-induced combat shock do you experience after grazing at the Rio? And at $23.99 plus tax for dinner, just how much would I have to eat to come out ahead?

Perhaps some questions are best left unanswered.

Alex Stone is the author of Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks and the Hidden Powers of the Mind.

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