The Internet offers us an abundance of options when selecting everything from bicycles to mates that is unprecedented in human history. Although we may think that the extra options are good, new research has shown that we may be more satisfied when choosing from fewer options – and we may not even be cognitively equipped to correct this misconception. Throughout most of human history, we’ve had significantly fewer options for choosing a mate, and so we would strongly welcome any additional options when they came along.
For instance, when our neocortex was developing, in part to deal with social networks, the average human group consisted of roughly 150 individuals. Healthy group members of reproductive age of the opposite sex would total about 35 – slim pickings, by the Internet’s standards. Because we developed in this kind of social environment, we have a tendency to desire ever more options. That’s why, for example, people are enticed by dating Web site Match. Com’s offer of “millions of possibilities.”
But, as a team of researchers has shown in a recent study, this abundance of options may not make the chooser feel or choose any better than a pool of just a half dozen or so options. Psychologist Alison Lenton from the University of Edinburgh, Barbara Fasolo from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and cognitive scientist Peter Todd from Indiana University have presented their findings on this subject in a recent issue of IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication. As the researchers explain, people tend to anticipate that they’ll feel better about “shopping for a mate” when there is a large number of options. However, in actuality, people feel equally good when faced with few as opposed to many options. The scientists performed two experiments demonstrating this clash between anticipation and experience.