Don't Make Me Pick

Lousy options can be as hard to select from as great ones.

By Annie McDonough, published September 4, 2018 - last reviewed on November 5, 2018

Shutterstock
Shutterstock

Even mundane choices between different devices or clothing brands can elicit strong evaluations, but does that make it any easier to choose? New research suggests that our discomfort actually peaks when we have to pick from possibilities that are especially appealing—or unappealing.

Across several studies, each participant judged hundreds of products (ranging from food to electronics) on their desirability and made hypothetical selections from sets of four at a time. The deciders then shared how stressed or anxious they felt when having to choose from each set. "People rated choice sets that were most below average and most above average as similarly anxiety-provoking," says Amitai Shenhav, a psychologist at Brown University.

The wide array of products, reminiscent of what one might encounter at a mall, may have played a part in the negative responses to not-so-exciting items. "We think people see these options in the context of more rewarding sets and experience them as things they want to avoid," Shenhav says. We may feel as though we're seeking the lesser of two evils, even if the evils are a bin of unappetizing snacks.