Having choices is sometimes a good thing. Back in the olden days, for example, children were often expected to enter into the professions of their parents—and I think I can speak for a lot of people when I say that I would probably not be well suited to the demands of a blacksmith or basket weaver. Similarly, I doubt that many would be happy to have “heavy metal” as the only Pandora channel available. In this vein, I think it’s clear that a certain amount of choices can confer the freedom and opportunity to choose options that best suit our individual personalities, interests, skill sets, etc. That being said, is it also possible there might be a downside to having choices?

This is just the argument made by psychologist Barry Schwartz who has famously posited the concept that too many choices may actually hinder and haunt us; a phenomenon he terms “the paradox of choice.” Schwartz poses that Western industrialized societies operate under the pervasive assumption that we benefit from freedom, and that the means for promoting freedom is to ensure that people have options.

What's so bad about having options? While there are certainly benefits of having options, according to Dr. Schwartz, these choices may also result in two negative outcomes. The first is that with too many options, people can become overwhelmed and immobilized—perhaps keeping them from making a choice. The second is that we may be more likely to feel regret, or buyer’s remorse, after making a decision between multiple options.

How might this “paradox of choice” relate to food? A number of studies (1-3) have revealed that when we have a variety of foods available to us, we tend to eat significantly more. One possible reason for this effect is termed “sensory-specific satiety.” (4) This means that as people eat the same food item, they tend to consider it less pleasant and consume less of it. If a different food item is then introduced, this process can essentially begin all over again, whereas if no new food was available, the person may have stopped eating after that first food became less pleasant.

This is certainly not to say that we should all limit ourselves to bread and butter at every meal. However, maybe next time you throw a party or even sit down for a family meal, it might be helpful to go against our societal or cultural instinct to serve numerous options—since the old saying “less is more” appears to be true even when it comes to food.

Rolls B., Rowe E., Rolls E., Kingston B., Megson A., Gunary R. (1981). Variety in a meal enhances food intake in man. Physiology & Behavior 26(2): 215-21.

McCrory M., Fuss P., McCallum J., Yao M., Vinken A., Hays N., and Roberts S. (1999). Dietary variety within food groups: association with energy intake and body fatness in men and women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 69(3): 440-7.

Moore C., Michopoulos V., Johnson Z., Toufexis D., Wilson M. (2013). Dietary variety is associated with larger meals in female rhesus monkeys. Physiology & Behavior 119: 190-4.

Remick A., Polivy J., Pliner P. (2009). Internal and external moderators of the effect of variety on food intake. Psychological Bulletin 135(3): 434-51.

About the Author

Nicole Avena, Ph.D.

Nicole Avena, Ph.D., is a research neuroscientist and an expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction.

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