A new Caltech study suggests there’s a sweet spot for how many choices to offer.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated October 04, 2018
Credit: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

A generation or so ago, large menus appeared to be on the upswing. Restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory made a name for themselves by presenting guests with menus the size of books. But more recently, the trend has been the opposite: paring menus down to a more focused selection. Sure, limiting the number of options has benefits for the kitchen as well, but a new study out of the California Institute of Technology suggests that less can also be more for diners… as long as the menu isn’t too short.

Scientists have known for decades that, though people prefer a variety of choices, too many choices can also be overwhelming and frustrating, making choosing more difficult. Researchers at Caltech decided to delve deeper into this phenomenon in a study that presented volunteers with sets of either six, 12, or 24 scenic pictures, telling the participants that they had to choose their favorite to be printed on a piece of merchandise. While making their decisions, the Caltech team also used fMRI scans to follow activity in the volunteers’ brains. What the researchers uncovered was a bit of a bell curve in how people think: The participants wanted enough choices to feel they were being rewarded with a good option, but too many choices resulted in too much mental work.

To put it another way, more options came with diminishing returns. “The idea is that the best out of 12 is probably rather good, while the jump to the best out of 24 is not a big improvement,” says Colin Camerer, Caltech's Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics and the T&C Chen Center for Social and Decision Neuroscience Leadership Chair. Choosing from a larger group came with too much “mental cost.”

Camerer stresses that 12 isn’t necessarily a magic number when it comes to choices; it was simply the number used for this particular experiment. However, since 12 performed significantly better than six or 24, a good amount of choices is likely somewhere in that range: between eight and 15 depending on factors like the perceived reward, the difficulty of evaluating the options, and the picker’s personality, he explained. Take that, Cheesecake Factory!