Even positive choices stress us out, scientists find

A win-win decision sounds like it can only lead to good things, right? It’s in the name. But scientists have discovered that having two great options really stresses us out. So if you’ve ever agonised between two similar pairs of shoes, two phones with practically the same specs, or even between chocolate-covered fudge and creme caramel, this might be why.

Researchers from Princeton University’s Neuroscience Institute ran an experiment to see what happens when people are asked to make choices. Subjects were shown photos of two different objects and asked to pick one, while functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) monitored their brain activity. They were also asked to rate their feelings before and during the choice.

Choosing between two covetable options (including the latest gadgets) prompted the most pleasure but also the most anxiety. This was especially the case when the items were similar in price. The subjects’ feelings were backed up by brain scans showing activity in the prefrontal cortex and the striatum, regions associated with decision making. While the lower parts of these regions were found to be linked to excitement, the upper parts related to higher levels of anxiety.

We might think that excitement would override our anxiety, but lucky for us, humans are complex enough to feel both equally. According to Amitai Shenhav, who led the research, that’s because these parallel parts of our brains serve different purposes. ‘One of them is about evaluating the thing we’re going to get, and the other is about guiding our actions and working out how difficult the choice will be.’

Further testing showed that even when subjects were told how similar the objects they had to choose between were, they felt the same levels of anxiety about picking one. Giving them more than two choices made them even more conflicted. Having more time to choose didn’t make things any easier, and people who reported more levels of anxiety on a day-to-day basis were more likely to want to change their minds after making a decision. The scientists concluded that the problem wasn’t in having to pick one item over another but having to make a choice at all.

That means that when it comes to weighing up which phone to buy next, we might never feel fully confident in our choice, so may as well make a snap decision and hope for the best.

Image via Lee McCoy’s Flickr.

Diane Shipley