I read somewhere that compared taking in too much information to eating too much food, it feels good when you take it in, but soon makes you feel stuffed and uncomfortable.

We are living in an information age – where we are bombarded with email, television, iPods, cell phones with internet, text messaging, and background music. It’s no wonder we sometimes feel like our brains are in overdrive! Soon we find ourselves confused and incapable of making decisions, stressed out, and this can lead to depression.

One famous study on information overload, by social psychologist Sheena Iyengar, showed shoppers being given a choice of different jam samples at a mall. When offered a choice of only six items, 30% of the shoppers went on to purchase one of the six items. When offered a larger choice, of 24 samples to choose from, shoppers became confused and were less likely to go on to purchase an item. It seems the more choices offered the less likelihood the shopper was able to make a decision.

Look at the shelves in a grocery store health and beauty aids aisle. There are yards of different types of shampoos – for color treated hair, dry hair, shampoos with conditioners built in, fragrant shampoos, hypo-allergenic shampoos, etc. You get the picture. With so many choices to pick from, it becomes increasingly difficult to make a decision. Even when one is finally made there is a lot of second-guessing as to whether the right decision was made.

14th Century philosopher Jean Brudain stated that if a hungry and thirst mule was given the option of choosing between water or a bale of hay, he would die before he could make a decision.  Why is it easier to make a decision when faced with fewer choices?

Scientists have tried to find out the reason behind the theory they call “choice overload.” They believe that when someone is faced with too many options only one of two outcomes will result: 1) Either we fail to make any choice at all; or 2) we end up unhappy with the decision we did make because we believe we could have made a better choice.

Is there something going on in our brain that makes decision making more difficult? Scientists have not been able to pinpoint exactly why this condition exists. Our brains process information through a series of connections called synapse that receive their information from our senses. When we are presented with a number of choices that are pleasing to our senses – like the jam samples above, your brain gets tired trying to combine all the senses needed to make a judgment. It requires “executive function,” and this can take away important resources in the brain. For example, in one study researchers found that participants who made more choices in a mall were more likely to have trouble solving simple math problems.  We make poorer decisions when our brains are tired.

These experimental insights suggest that the brain works like a muscle: when worn out it becomes less effective. Furthermore, we should take this knowledge into account when making decisions. If we’ve just spent lots of time focusing on a particular task, exercising self-control, or if we’ve just made a lot of minor decisions or choices, you probably shouldn’t try to make a major decision. Wait until your brain has had a chance to rest and regroup before taking on big decisions. Information overload is not something to dismiss.

This is Ron White, and I am a two-time USA Memory Champion




USA Today – Choice Overload Burdens Daily Life: http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/editorials/2004-01-05-edit_x.htm

Curiosity.com – Do too many options make it harder to choose?: http://curiosity.discovery.com/question/too-many-options-harder-choices

Discovery Channel video: <iframe id=”dit-video-embed” width=”640″ height=”360″ src=”http://static.discoverymedia.com/videos/components/dsc/d9d6a31154f41634391038d42ae53a1e8f3ecc94/snag-it-player.html?auto=no” frameborder=”0″ scrolling=”no” allowtransparency=”true”></iframe>

Information Overload, by William Van Winkle: http://www.gdrc.org/icts/i-overload/infoload.html

Wikipedia – Information Overload: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_overload