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How Much Is Too Much?

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Turns out, Robert is more impulsive than Jad, and Jad is more analytical than Robert. Shocking, right? Sadly for Jad, Robert's style may help him better navigate the overwhelming number of choices available throughout modern life's expanse of options, which may also lead him to a greater sense of well-being, according to psychologist Barry Schwartz. Jonah Lehrer helps us understand why by introducing us to George Miller's classic paper "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," which explains the ability of the average human to hold about seven pieces of discreet information in working memory at any given time. Any more than that, and, as researcher Baba Shiv demonstrates, our good judgment can be overwhelmed...a problem Oliver Sacks overcomes by allowing himself only limited options and a strict routine.

Comments [55]

Stephen Gilbert

Hi all, You might update your science re Miller's 7 plus minus 2: Cowen has more recently (as early as 2000) done new research showing it's more like 4.

For example:

Sep. 08 2015 05:52 AM
Chris from Woodbridge, VA

Great program on choice. Don't remember if it was this program or Barry Schwatrz's TED talk. His comment, "The key to happiness: lower your expectation" is so true. Though I was the same idea in a different way, "Expectations are resentments under construction".

Jan. 06 2015 04:48 PM
Cali Lili from Cali Lili Indies™VenusBeach™Cutting Edge Of The Pacific™

ADORE the show as usual ... especially today's topic ... i'm super "picky" about most things in life ...but also because i just made an indie feature film which deals with the topic of "choice," among other related topics ... and for me - there is a multiplicity of ever-widening circles of ideas/topics/themes that are all intricately related with the topics your show addresses ... I heard Barry Schwartz on Ted Talks ... and ... maybe due to the fact that i am so at home in the 21st Century ... and with the Tech-world ... indeed the "choice-world" ... - but i've got to say, that i SAVOR the DELICIOUSNESS and "Rights" for my choices ... "eVe n' god™ this female is not yet rated™" ...
Ironically, as my schedule has been INSANELY busy, creating both a feature film and an album, putting together my team, launching my tiny upstart film + music studio ... Like, your guest Oliver Sachs ( hope I'm spelling his name correctly, apologies if not) ... - I had to "actively narrow" the focus of my personal choices - food, clothing, workouts, socializing, online time ... etc ... - and ... due to the fact that my standards for the outcomes from my choices might be considered "over-achievement-oriented" - i did end up arriving at some wonderful new "discoveries" about my personal "preferences" ... - which, is also a topic addressed in my film ... so the "experiment" of launching my career, has also proven the semi-scientifically-themed love story i am telling in the film ...
Ultimately, both my screenplay/film + my personal experiments with these matters, do indeed agree with one of the conclusions your show pointed to ... which is - that the way i FEEL about making the "right choice for me" - far outweighs any need to be "socially acceptable" or "accepted" in any way by anybody else ... thus ... I arrive back at the conclusion which I feel refutes Barry Schwartz's discussion of "too many choices" as a sort of "malady" ... NO ! it is the DELICIOUSNESS of BEING FULLY ALIVE and BETTER YET - if we could all be AWARE of our Choices ... - all of us - in every country, every person of every race, gender, sexual orientation, preference ...- then ... - well ... - then ... - we could all approach the freedom that this very universe illustrates daily ... and surely - that is no malady ... : ) Oh NO ! I was not brief ... I now see that you request brevity ... Yikes - my emotions are clearly involved here ... otherwise, I could not have spent two plus years on my project ... Ah ... to be continued ... Hope those interested in this topic will check out my Movie Trailer/Teasers + Music Video on YouTube ... I am very proud of my FeMPoWord™ Team at Cali Lili Indies™ Pictures Words Music In Motion™ ©Cali Lili™

Jan. 04 2015 08:25 PM
Tim J from Los Angeles

You guys seem to be chuckling heartily over the daily routine of Oliver Sacks, but I think it’s more disturbing than humorous. Ironically, given his study of unusual conditions and behaviors over the years, Sacks himself sounds like he’s very much in need of a good therapist. His daily food routine is not just habitual but seems downright pathological—a bit obsessive, a bit compulsive (regulating the compulsive by limiting the number of apples, lest he eat a huge quantity of them), and quite unnerving. Yikes! What he doesn’t seem to understand is that the body will regulate its appetite very nicely if you’re eating proper foods to begin with, unless of course you have some major hormonal or other malfunction that proper diet won’t correct by itself. He hasn’t really eliminated the stress of choosing; he’s succumbed to a different type of food obsession even as he believes he’s narrowed down to his few favorites and is quite content with this pathology of restriction.

Jan. 04 2015 07:18 PM
P.N. Wester from Los Angeles, CA

Too bad Dr. Sacks didn't have the idea to freeze some kidneys, save some for later and pace himself.

Jan. 03 2015 11:52 PM
Max from Quebec

What the name of the song when they enter the supermarket at the beginning?

Aug. 19 2013 03:30 PM

Stable URL to Baba Shiv's study,

Aug. 12 2013 10:46 PM
Stayce from SF

Updated link to Baba Shiv's fruit-n-cake study,

Aug. 12 2013 09:43 PM
Tim from Minneapolis

You did the audio for the cake vs fruit a little backwards. When defining your point, you said that the "rational" brain, the part that is in charge of making the choice to choose health/self-esteem/the long run, would be the side determining fruit would be the correct choice, and that since that same rational side has to remember a number, that portion of the brain should be conflicted with remembering the number vs stating the positives for the fruit. However, your audio reflected the rational brain arguing with the pro-cake side. It helped me to understand your point better, in the sense that I had to rewind and determine the program's audio was misleading, but I have a feeling that wasn't your intention :)

Oct. 23 2012 01:23 PM
Daniel @ Sungevity in Oakland from Oakland

Does anyone have recommendations on books on this subject?

Jan. 11 2012 03:12 PM
Greg Jackson from North Platte, NE

Let this be a lesson learned, re: Apple Pears or Asian Pears.
An excellent apple (very crisp, sweet w/ hint of pear flavor), with an exception. When it's the Korean version of the Apple/Asian Pear (signage and sticker will confirm) --- Pass. I've yet to find a Korean Apple/Asian Pear that was enjoyable.

Oct. 09 2011 03:53 PM

They're Jazz apples, not Zazz apples. Can the hosts not read cursive?

Jul. 04 2011 12:55 PM

You guys are the BEST! The bitches comment didn't bother me a fact I laughed a "belly laugh".

The digits and the cake vs fruit choice was telling and reinforces my stress eating when I am having a rough day at work. I am reinforcing and self medicating and have wired my brain with the mindless munching.
I was also interested in the emotional side of choice and the example of "Joe" and holding the coffee. At my next job interview, I am going to bring hand warmers. :)

Nov. 14 2010 02:37 PM
philippmikio from Germany

I am trying to find the corresponding research paper to the experiment conducted by Shiv Baba.

....I can't seem to find it. It's like it was never published. Any suggestions?

Sep. 22 2010 04:09 PM

I have a different question about the cake / banana study. Was there a difference in how well people remembered the 7 digit numbers, between the banana pickers and the chocolate pickers?

I know more picked banana, but not even thinking about that - did both groups remember equally well?

Dec. 13 2009 06:26 PM

I'm glad other people didn't take the "bitches" comment too seriously.

I laughed so hard the first time I heard it.

Jun. 24 2009 07:10 PM
Stuart Janssen from Philly

Heh, I listened to one of the shorter podcasts where they talked about the "bitches" bit, and I know I had listened to the choices show before, but I just heard it now and started laughing. I think, if anything, its the best example of the show- they made a choice, whether for better or for worse.

Jun. 06 2009 08:09 AM
ana from CA

Very recently I moved out to Berkeley and was shocked and exhilarated by the Berkeley Bowl...the amount of choices was daunting.

But when I reached the apple section life suddenly became easy... I knew I had to buy the JAZZ apples.

THANK YOU! JAZZ apples are the BEST!!!

May. 21 2009 12:12 AM
Filmi Girl from Bollywood

KYAAAA! Barry Schwartz!!! You guys made my day by taking him to the grocery store!

Apr. 07 2009 04:33 PM
Karl from NH

I've been catching up on RadioLab podcasts this month and heard the "bitches" line last week. After hearing the apology today and finding the controversy in the comments here I have to support Jad, at least partially.

While I was a little shocked to hear the word (and backed up the track to be sure), it was not that I was offended, merely surprised at this atypical vocabulary for the context. [31] Chris is correct: We have a *choice* of whether we are going to obey the statement "Stay with us ...", but we aren't *really* going to stop listening. We are slaves to our desire to listen to quality programs such as this, hence we are Jad & Robert's bitches in the current slang use of the term. Perhaps that's deeper than the thought that actually went into it at the time, but many decisions are influenced by the subconscious, aren't they?

Apr. 06 2009 03:32 PM

I can't believe you caved to the pressure. "bitches" is a sarcastic term of endearment. It was funny and great.

As for the "sexual preference" isn't a choice... I agree. Nevertheless, sexual action. DEFINITELY CHOICE. And I've had a few friends in High School, especially, choose to explore. I know quite a few people who are straight who fooled around with the same sex, likewise, I know people who are gay who made out with me (uh, I'm straight, mostly).

In other words, kids are experimenting with their choices to determine their own sexual preference. Ya know, they feel safe enough to try stuff out. Maybe not everywhere and not in every environment but it is happening.

So in that way, YES it is a choice. Remember, someone can always lie, even to themselves, about their true feelings. All we really have is their actions.

Go bitches ;)

Mar. 20 2009 05:34 PM
Andrew Mooney from St Paul MN

Jad, thank you for the apology about the bitches comment in one of your other podcasts. I was wondering why you said that. Is there a darker side to you?

Mar. 20 2009 05:07 PM
Rummy from Orlando

Great show. I kinda lost focus after hearing about the chocolate cake though. Partly since it's yummy and partly since I have work, social and at least 5 other things on my mind.

Mar. 09 2009 03:19 PM
Jonathan from San Diego

I wonder if Jad's a fan of "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia." "Bitches" is a pretty common greeting in that milieu, just as "Hail, Radion Romanovich" is in "Crime and Punishment"; and it's become a fixture of my poppy-cultural friends' conversations ("bitches," that is, not the other thing).

Jan. 30 2009 02:36 AM

We pretty much are Jad's bitches for the hour, so he's correct in what he said.

Jan. 28 2009 09:46 PM

> But it's the unintentional slips that worry me

... and it's the people that choose to grasp for offense at any turn of phrase that worry me--even more so when they readily acknowledge that there was no hint of harm or prejudice in the person speaking. Expecting the whole world to be put through an industrial-strength political-correctness filter before it reaches your eyes or ears is to the detriment of us all, including your own cause.

I think it'll be a strong sign that the world is getting beyond prejudice when someone can make an innocent remark that might be interpreted negatively, and nobody can be bothered to do so.

Jan. 28 2009 02:16 AM
scott stambler from los angeles

Regarding Creative choice. I was shocked, no bummed out that this wasn't covered. I work in a field where creative choices are made constantly. It's part of my work. Film music. You wouldn't believe how some choices are made.... I was hoping you'd delve into the subject.

BTW people gamble at two to one odds because that's an attractive financial choice. Read about "pot odds" and you'll understand. It's poker terminology.

love the show. favorite was War Of The Worlds. you guys rock.

Jan. 17 2009 07:59 PM
Pearce from Southeast U.S.

Katie, re: "bitches"... it was NOT edited out of my local radio broadcast this evening! I heard this as I was driving home. I was initially shocked, then amused.

Jan. 09 2009 11:10 PM
Rita Majkut from Los Angeles, California

I was surprised there was no mention of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) in your show. His famous quote,"Nobody can remember more of seven of anything", seemed like it would fit right in.

Dec. 23 2008 02:18 PM
Erika Padilla-Morales from Oakland, CA

I LOVE your show.

This episode reminded me so much of my advertising courses at Syracuse.

The racial bias section triggered a lot of emotion that helps fuel my work with youth.

As a multi-ethnic person I appreciate the struggle of having many different origins and yet having to work with the bias that persons outside of myself have when they meet me visually. They see the West African ancestry.

Continue the excellent work. You're slowly becoming my second favourite show in NPR (TAL was my first love.)

Dec. 20 2008 11:42 PM

Very interesting. Do you think the warmth and cold associations work in very warm climates?

Dec. 15 2008 09:02 PM
Keith from SF, CA

Optimal numbers of choices-
I've wondered about what might be an ideal number range of decisions with an ideal number range of choices for each decision. For example, in the recent General Election here in SF, we had 22 State Questions to vote on and 12 Municipal Questions, each to be decided by a simple "yes" or "no." Thus, there were many decisons (34, IMHO too many) with a few choices (2).

Does anyone know of research in this political-related area?



Dec. 12 2008 12:39 AM
Jennifer Mulligan from Haverhill, MA

What a smart made me think and laugh. I was listening while I drove home and when I arrived I gave my husband all the highlights while I continued to process all of this- fascinating stuff. I'm a 35 year old elementary school teacher and this talk made me want to return to school and study psychology. Thanks for the inspiration!

Dec. 07 2008 01:06 PM
Katie from Seattle, WA

I just wanted to add my vote of surprise at Jad's 'bitches' comment. I was surprised for oh--half a second-- before that gave way to a fit of bus-inappropriate laughter. Was that on the radio-edit as well as the podcast?

Dec. 04 2008 08:18 PM
Sarah Stauffer


I was a student for a while at the school that Barry Schwartz works at (Swarthmore College), and I completely agree with you. It isn't so much about being privileged as it's about being pulled in a number of different directions. Swarthmore is a selective school that attracts hard-working intelligent students. They've been successful in school and have every reason to believe that they deserve a lucrative career. At the same time, since they are intelligent, they should be able to pick a career they love. Another factor is that the Swarthmore atmosphere encourages activism and change, so that is another factor.

So what is a student to choose?

A lucrative career that will gain them social standing and perhaps a more financially secure future? (family and society at large may promote this)

A career that they love independent of other factors?

An activism related career that promotes change? (peers may motivate this)

And are there jobs that incorporate more than one of these things? And will that combination work for me?

It's a lot to consider and decide between especially when, as an intelligent person, you've basically been told you can do anything you set your mind to. If you make a decision that turns out to be wrong, you have no one to blame but yourself for making the wrong choice.

Dec. 04 2008 12:46 AM
David Bockoven from Fresno CA

I wish to have heard more about Barry Schwartz's students. There was something vaguely censorious (and conventional) in your remarks about the most privileged kids ever, having been given everything they needed, being unable to choose a door to go through.

Barry's got a good explanation for their paralysis of choice. Is it the only one?

Seems to me these kids, who haven't been pushed by the strictures of survival, also face an existential dilemma: Which choice (of profession, career, way-of-life) will be least unpleasant. This isn't because they have become soft and wimpy in the course of privileged development, but because they have seen how good life can be.

Some of them look out into the post-grad world with clear eyes, and see ugliness, rather than endlessly rewarding challenges. Doctor or lawyer? Yuck. Etc. Grade school teacher? Maybe yes, but that would mean conventional disapproval of low prestige waste of a good eduction. Etc. How to choose?

Doncha think?

Strictures of survival, on the other hand, cast your lot for you. If you're reasonably resilient, you accept your lot, make the best of it, find happiness in the rewards, etc.

In any case, I wish we had heard a little more about the students than a rather censorious-sounding, old-person judgmental dismissiveness.

Nov. 29 2008 03:56 PM

Re: Bitches at 4:40..

We were listening on my MP3 in the car- my wife had to play it back several times to get the full chuckle out of it.

Nov. 23 2008 04:53 PM
Marc Crompton from Vancouver, BC

I love RadioLab! It gets me through many a rush hour drive and always gets me thinking and re-evaluating. Choices was yet another brilliant episode but the big question I have is what is with the word "bitches." You guys are too concerned with the editing for that to be a mistake. Maybe I'm just missing the connection to the rest of the episode or maybe you're conducting an experiment for a future episode. I gotta know.

Nov. 20 2008 11:10 AM
Suzanne Cofer

I guffawed so heartily at Jad's "bitches" quip that the gentleman on the treadmill next to me felt compelled to ask just what was so funny. What was I supposed to say? I said, "It's Radio Lab. The show is all about choices." He said, "That doesn't sound very funny to me."

Just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it Jad?

Nov. 19 2008 05:48 PM


i'd like to know if "creativity" was talked about at all during this show's R/D period. i'd be very interested to know how we deal with decisions when confronted with issues that have no "right" answer.


Nov. 18 2008 05:57 PM
David Harrington from Manhattan

Jad, why do you call us "bitches" at precisely 4:40 into the podcast?

Nov. 18 2008 10:50 AM
Jon from Indianapolis

Ceridwynne -

Thanks for the comment. Yeah, actually, I've been around the block perhaps a little more than my clumsy comment may lead you to believe. I didn't really think Jad or Schwartz meant any intentional harm. But it's the unintentional slips that worry me - if only because I know, however "at length" the liberal circles may discuss it, there are plenty of folks out there, still filled with hate, ready to seize on those slips and use them to their own ends. If I seem a little overly sensetive, the show was on the very subject of "Choice" after all! Also, for the record, sorry, but I took the exchange down verbatim: "...every imaginable Lifestyle Choice is possible...etc." But I'll let go now, I swear.

Nov. 17 2008 11:08 PM
Ceridwynne from Queens, NY

J and Aaron,

When you right click you will have the option to "save file as" this will give the opportunity to name the file, which will then download as an MP3 file.


Neither Jad nor Schwartz said being bi, gay or straight was a choice. Scwartz was making the point that when he was younger there was a type of "default" lifestyle you were *expected* to have... you got married & had kids, period (regardless of your biological programming. think about it! How many older gay people do you know who were once in a hetero relationship if not marriage?). There was a lack of choice, which was imposed on people by society (not biology or cognitive decision making).

Since this is a subject that has been discussed AT LENGTH in liberal circles for quite a while now, how much more time do you need them to spend on clarifying every little remark they make when it was not the point of the show?

I do agree that it was out of context and didn't add as much depth to the insight they were going for as it could have.

Nov. 17 2008 10:08 PM
Aaron from Louisville

J, I feel your pain, I cannot get the link to work either to download. I can only listen online. Please help Radiolab!!

Nov. 17 2008 08:37 PM
Jon from Indianapolis

It's only because I find your show so consistently brilliant and enlightening that I was amazed to hear one brief, disappointing exchange about two minutes into this show. Here's what I heard:
Barry Scwartz: ... every imaginable lifestyle choice is possible.
Jad: You can be gay, straight, bi...
Barry: Exactly!
Now, do I need to explain why this is so disappointing to a gay man who, in 2008, still finds himself hearing bad info being casually tossed off about how he lives his life - especially when it's coming from brilliant and enlightened people whom he tremendously respects?

Nov. 17 2008 08:12 PM
Eric from Minneapolis

The Baba Shiv "article" link does not work. It goes to the Standford website and ends in an "error"

Nov. 17 2008 07:51 PM
arkonbey from Underhill, Vermont

Good show as usual. I totally agree. I'm in the midst of choice lockup, myself. I've been wanting to buy a model aircraft kit from a website and I'm desperately afraid of making the 'wrong' choice and flushing $20-35 down the drain. "What ifs" abound over something that is so inherently trivial. Don't want to end up like Jad and the apple...

I must disagree about fleeting comment on bike gears. As a serious cross-country mountain biker I DO use nearly all of my 27 speeds at one time or another. The few I don't use on my cassette are still useful to facilitate a smooth transition from one gear to the next. I haven't used my 22t chainring in a while and I suppose I could ditch it, but I just turned 40 and I'm anticipating deteriorating knees ;)

Nov. 17 2008 04:21 PM
J Wray

Am I missing something? I right click on "Listen to the whole show." and still don't get a chance to download the mp3 file. The mp3 is necessary - my computer is too large to carry to the gym with me.


Nov. 17 2008 03:49 PM
Sophie from berkeley

Yay! go berkeley ca. i really love your show

Nov. 16 2008 05:53 PM

Thanks, Ryan!

Nov. 16 2008 03:48 PM

Ryan from Austin,

Thanks for the tip! I was starting to get desperate.

Nov. 16 2008 12:53 AM
Ryan from Austin, TX

If you are having trouble with the "Listen To The Whole Show" link/player as I was, right/ctrl click save-as the link... it will give you the mp3 to download and is working.


Nov. 15 2008 11:15 PM
Michelle Martinez from Norwalk, CT

I'd love to hear the piece and missed Friday's broadcast. Any chance you can make the "listen to the entire show" link active?

Nov. 15 2008 12:08 PM
George from jersey city

Great show! I'm a grad student in psych though, and was somewhat annoyed at the sensationalism of the claim that we lack will to control unconscious motives. Bargh's work is great and shows that priming DOES affect behavior. Most work I'm aware of, however, shows that conscious control affects MOST behavior.

Nov. 15 2008 11:13 AM
lucy from brooklyn

that was fascinating.

Nov. 14 2008 03:20 PM

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