The Food Court Dilemma

The Food Court Dilemma

It’s lunchtime and you’re standing in the food court. That feeling hits – the ‘food court feeling’; being so overwhelmed with choice that you can’t decide what to have for lunch. It’s not a good feeling. In fact, the more you walk around the food court, the more anxious you seem to get.

So why do we get this ‘food court feeling’? Why, in the face of options, do we become indecisive?

Indecisiveness – why does it happen?

Firstly, let’s revert back to basic economic theories of decision-making. Humans supposedly behave rationally; and a decision will be considered rational if it maximises utility by giving us the most amount of satisfaction. However, in order to find this optimal lunchtime meal, we will need to undergo a search to gather information and form beliefs on the utility of each food court option. Unless other factors such as time constraints are in play, no one buys the first thing they see in the food court, because without a thorough search for possibilities we cannot be sure we will make a good (let alone an optimal) decision. Accordingly, behavioural economists contend that other things being equal, the more options considered, the better a decision is likely to be.[1]

The search for an option which provides the greatest utility may be long and winding, particularly in the food court maze, where options are presented in overwhelming abundance. It is on this search that choice overload hits.

Consequently, our decision-making abilities suffer due to a perpetual conflict between a bombardment of facts that demand a decision to be made and the desire to avoid an unpleasant outcome.[2] Ultimately, we want to avoid the consequence of buyer’s remorse – the sense of regret after having made a purchase. What if the food doesn’t taste as good as expected? What if it was too expensive for the portion given? What if you spotted a perceivably better item as you walked out of the food court?

Additionally, as we spot more lunch options on our search for food, rising opportunity costs associated with alternate choices compound, prompting hesitations. Even when we see a food court item we believe has a satisfactorily high perceived value relative to other items – a chicken wrap for example – why do we then decide to then walk around the food court one last time? Because buying the chicken wrap means giving up the perceived value from all the opportunities we ultimately reject. Action is delayed because the perception of value loss holds us back from seeking the actual value of one alternative.[3]

The cost of indecision

Unfortunately, embarking on another loop of the food court comes at a cost.

The problem that arises with increased search to find a maximum utility option is that this involves time and effort. Whilst search is most useful at the beginning of the decision-making process, there is a point of diminishing return beyond which search is no longer worthwhile.[4] Thus, the benefit of search must be balanced with the cost of the search itself. Considering a lunchtime meal merely provides a short dining experience and sustenance for a few hours, it would be irrational to undertake a lengthy search for food. After all, you aren’t eating this chicken wrap for the rest of your life!

In addition, further delay in buying lunch also risks two undesirable outcomes.[5] Firstly, opportunities may pass us by as options are taken by others so that we lose the one we wanted most. As the lunchtime hour hits, people may swoop up the food court’s best items, including the chicken wrap spotted earlier. The pool of perceived value we can pick from is now significantly lower. Secondly, we may completely miss all opportunities and be left with no value at all. Luckily, given today’s food courts, the chances of this occurring are relatively low.

Nonetheless, indecision can undoubtedly take an emotional toll on the non-decider – that feeling of food court anxiety. Choice overload ultimately creates strong feelings of dissonance. Schwartz labels this situation as the ‘paradox of choice’, whereby the luxury of choices can lead to indecision and unhappiness.[6]

Can we stop indecisiveness?

Whilst indecisiveness forms part of human nature, we may be able to avoid it.

For example, we can try to set up the scene so that choice overload cannot occur. Having clear preferences for an item type eliminates the risk of choice overload drastically – a win for picky eaters or those with food allergies.[7] Furthermore, having a clearly dominant, maximum utility option in the choice set can also remove choice overload.[8] Unfortunately, oftentimes it is not up to the chooser to decide what food is presented to us at the food court. However, familiarity with the choice set can also allow a consumer to more easily sort through the options and reduce being overwhelmed by variety.[9] This gives us reason to head back to the same food court again and again. By the fifth visit, our search and decision time will hopefully be minimal.

Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee that all situations can be manipulated to bypass choice overload. In such circumstances, the best we can do is to reduce the possibility of experiencing the dreaded buyer’s remorse. Ultimately, the more resources invested into making a purchase, the more likely a consumer will experience buyer’s remorse.[11] Accordingly, the rule is to reduce the time, and mental and physical effort spent on choosing our lunch meal, in case our choice does not bear the reward we expected it to.

Whilst indecisiveness cannot be prevented, we may be able to avoid the negative consequences of indecision through rational behaviour. Whether it is letting someone else decide, or buying the first thing we see, we need to ensure that the search costs are proportionate to the utility of the outcome.

So if you’ve been walking around a food court for ten minutes of your lunch break, tell yourself to pick something now – because at this point, the reward won’t be worth the cost.



[1] Baron, J. (2008). Thinking and deciding (4th ed.). United States of America: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Rana, A.W. (2015, December 7). The economic cost of indecision. Retrieved August 15, 2016 from

[3] Chaffee, P. (2016, March 30). The economics of indecision. Retrieved August 15, 2016 from

[4] Baron, J. (2008). Thinking and deciding (4th ed.). United States of America: Cambridge University Press.

[5] Chaffee, P. (2016, March 30). The Economics of Indecision. Retrieved August 15, 2016 from

[6] Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York: Ecco.

[7] Scheibehenne, B., Greifeneder, R., & Todd, P. M. (2010). Can There Ever Be Too Many Options? A Meta‐Analytic Review of Choice Overload. Journal of Consumer Research, 37(3), 409-425.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Geva, A., & Goldman, A. (1991). Duality in Consumer post-purchase attitude. Journal of Economic Psychology, 12, 141–164.

[11] Ibid.

Image: Venezuelan food court, Flickr (Uploaded by SchuminWeb) under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.