So many choices! Here’s how people make a decision when faced with several options

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It’s a moment full of terror, panic, and hunger — which snack do you pick from the vending machine? So how do the most indecisive of people finally make a selection when facing dozens of choices? A new study finds human decision making is less about picking favorites and more about sheer eye contact.

Researchers from the United States and Germany say the amount of time people spend looking at a certain object helps them ultimately decide whether or not to pick it. Their experiment reveals consumers choose snacks they spend more time looking at, even over choices they rate as more appealing.

“We could do pretty well predicting what people would choose based just on their ratings of the snacks available to them. But we could do an even better job by accounting for how much they looked at each item,” says Ian Krajbich from The Ohio State University in a release.

Snacking is not all about love at first sight

Although eye contact plays a role in making decisions in the snack aisle, researchers say that’s not the whole story.

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” the study co-author adds.

Krajbich and a team from Berlin examined 49 snack food fans during their study. Each person agreed to fast for at least four hours before participating in the experiment. Researchers then presented the group with set of nine, 16, 25, or 36 different snack foods on a computer screen. They also asked each person to choose which option they’d like eat the most after the test.

While repeating this exercise several times, eye-tracking technology recorded where each snacker’s eyes moved while making their pick. At the end of the experiment, the group finally ranked all 80 snacks they saw based on personal preference.

The results reveal people don’t look very carefully at all the options they have before making a choice. In fact, consumers don’t even look at every item until finding their favorite snack. Instead, researchers find a person’s eyes move around in a way that looks random, but is actually connected to the location of certain items they like more than others.

“There is this peripheral screening process where people learn to avoid even looking directly at the snacks they don’t really like,” says Krajbich, an OSU associate professor of psychology and economics. “This is not something that we see in studies where participants only have two alternatives. It only occurs when they have lots of options.”

‘Good enough’ is NOT good enough after all

Study authors say a common theory among scientists is that humans will stop at a choice they find “good enough” when they have several options. In this case, it would be a snack they enjoy eating, even if it’s not their favorite.

However, the results show most snackers don’t settle for the first treat they find satisfying. In fact, only 45 percent of the participants selected the last snack they looked at during the experiment.

More often, consumers looked through the choices before going back and forth between a few snacks until one stood out from the pack. Study authors add this choice was typically the one participants looked at the longest.

“People made a choice when they concluded the best option was sufficiently better than the next-best option,” Krajbich explains.

When it comes to how people study their options, most tend to treat it like reading a book. Most of the group browsed through snacks from left to right and from top to bottom. This however did not play any major role in how snackers made their choices, the team reports.

“Pretty quickly their attention gets drawn to their higher-value options. That influences their search process and their gaze starts to jump around less predictably,” Krajbich concludes.

The study appears in the journal eLife.

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