Adrift in a Sea of Choices

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Feel overwhelmed at times by decision-making? It's not just you. Having to make too many choices can affect one's ability to stay focused, finish work and do complex mental tasks, finds a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Almost 400 people took part in seven experiments in which some were asked to make choices or rate various products. The more choices individuals had to make and the more time they spent deciding, the worse they fared on later tasks, regardless of the complexity of the choices.

In one experiment, some participants were asked to choose between two consumer products. Those people had a harder time than other participants drinking a bad-tasting beverage, even though they were offered a nickel for every ounce consumed. In another test, undergrads asked to choose course materials for a psychology class did worse on math problems than a similar group asked only to read the materials; the choice group completed fewer problems and got fewer correct.

"These findings are important insofar as they link two central aspects of modern life: abundance of choices and a lack of self-control," said Kathleen Vohs, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. "People tend to think of having choice as being good -- and, in small doses, it is -- but in large doses . . . it makes [attempts to exert self-control] less successful."

-- Tammy Worth


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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