A vending machine at Hudson Yards, Manhattan, New York. Photo by GC

What is the best way to make a quick decision in a world brimming with a dizzying array of choices?

A team of psychologists at the University of Basel, Switzerland, decided to try and find out.

Participants in a series of experiments were asked to choose a favourite food item from three options.

By using eye-tracking software the researchers found that the participants did not distribute their attention equally between the three choices, but almost immediately discounted one and focused on the remaining two.

We can see the implications of this all around us, given how often we are presented with simple A/B options.

Next time you visit a high end restaurant notice how wine glasses are often already on the table. After being seated someone will invariably be presented with a wine menu.

The question becomes not, “what would you like to drink?”, but rather, “red or white?”

It is no coincidence that restaurants make profit margins upwards of 70% on wine.

“These bifurcated choices (‘red or white’, ‘still or sparkling’, ‘tea or coffee’, ‘Labour or Conservative’) typically give the illusion of autonomy while actually inhibiting it,” explains Rory Sutherland.

“Kingsley Amis thought ‘Red or white?’ the three most depressing words in the English language.”

One area where this principle seems not to apply is in coffee shops.

Placing an order in an artisan coffee shop can be an exercise in navigating Byzantine levels of complexity.

“In a quest to offer a uniquely satisfying and bespoke experience, you have a choice between a variety of different beans (Arabica or Robusta), countries of origin (Colombia, Brazil or Ghana) and roasts (blonde, medium or dark),” explains Eva M. Krockow Ph.D.

“But picking a bean is only the first step. Next, you have to decide on a specific coffee drink. Ristretto? Espresso? Lungo? Café crema? Macchiato? Cappuccino? Flat white? Café au lait? Turkish coffee? Americano? Long black? Mocha? Caffe latte? Frappé? Irish coffee? Then comes the milk. Full-fat? Semi-skimmed? Skimmed? Lactose-free? Soy? Almond? Oat? Rice milk?”

It is a long way from that old question, “coffee or tea?”

A version of this article was published as part of a weekly column by Guy Cookson on marketing, design, trends and strategy in the Lancaster Guardian, Blackpool Gazette and Lancashire Post. See our brand, web design and marketing recent projects.

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