Modern societies offer a large variety of choices1,2, which is generally thought to be valuable3,4,5,6,7. But having too much choice can be detrimental1,2,3,8,9,10,11 if the costs of choice outweigh its benefits due to ‘choice overload’12,13,14. Current explanatory models of choice overload mainly derive from behavioural studies13,14. A neuroscientific investigation could further inform these models by revealing the covert mental processes during decision-making. We explored choice overload using functional magnetic resonance imaging while subjects were either choosing from varying-sized choice sets or were browsing them. When choosing from sets of 6, 12 or 24 items, functional magnetic resonance imaging activity in the striatum and anterior cingulate cortex resembled an inverted U-shaped function of choice set size. Activity was highest for 12-item sets, which were perceived as having ‘the right amount’ of options and was lower for 6-item and 24-item sets, which were perceived as ‘too small’ and ‘too large’, respectively. Enhancing choice set value by adding a dominant option led to an overall increase of activity. When subjects were browsing, the decision costs were diminished and the inverted U-shaped activity patterns vanished. Activity in the striatum and anterior cingulate reflects choice set value and can serve as neural indicator of choice overload.
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The data that support the findings of this study as well as the data underlying our power calculations are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request. Unthresholded statistical maps of our main fMRI-results are available at NeuroVault.org66 (https://neurovault.org/collections/4117/).
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
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The authors acknowledge support from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Education, grants nos. ECO2011-29865 (to E.R.), SEJ2005-08391 and ECO2008-01768 (to R.N.), the German Research Council (DFG CIN) (to A.L.), Generalitat de Catalunya, and BGSE (to R.N.), the Moore Foundation (to C.F.C. and R.A.A.), the Human Frontier Science Program (to C.F.C., R.N. and E.R.), the National Institutes of Health (Conte to C.F.C. and R.A.A.), the National Science Foundation and Boswell Foundation (to R.A.A), Caltech T&C Chen Social and Decision Neuroscience Center (to C.F.C.) and Caltech T&C Chen Brain–Machine Interface Center (to R.A.A.). The funders had no role in the conceptualization, design, data collection, analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. The authors thank K. Quinn, A. Tank and A. Miro for help on previous versions of the manuscript.