I recently came across about an interesting experiment reference the impact of more choices. They set up an experiment at a local farmer’s market. During the first time, they had a booth that would sell two different homemade jams. During the second time, they had a booth that would also sell homemade jams, but they had about twenty different choices. Guess which time they sold more jams? You figure the one with the more choices. More choices = better sales? Turns out that is not true. More choices actually reduced the total number of jam jars sold.


A recent fMRI study by Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University determined that as the information increased (= more choices), the region in the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (the PFC is responsible for decision making and control of emotions) became more active. However, at some point in time, the information (= even more choices) became so much, the dorsolateral PFC shutdown. She compared it to a circuit breaker that had just popped.  This caused the people in the experiment to make stupid mistakes and make really bad choices. The “smart choices” part of the brain, had left the brain and the person was just running on impulse.


Another side effect of more information overload was an increase in anxiety and frustration as that same brain region controls “keeping a lid” of emotions.  So, not only can you not make good decisions anymore, but you also get very anxious and frustrated and that might translate into making decisions that just don’t make any sense.


Ever asked a fetal alcohol child why he did a certain thing? You get a blank stare, a shrug, or an angry glare. Maybe this is why! They really don’t know, because their dorsolateral PFC has shutdown due to too many choices.  Therefore, if we all have problems with the “circuit breaker” popping when faced with too many choices, why is this issue so prevalent with people with fetal alcohol syndrome?


Maybe fetal alcohol caused the dorsolateral PFC to be less active to begin with. Maybe the circuit breaker pops after twenty choices with your average adult, but maybe with fetal alcohol people it pops already after three choices. And maybe their circuit breaker pops and it doesn’t reset so easily. The other is not just the number of choices, but the speed at which you have to make the choice. Fetal alcohol children seem to take a lot longer to perform certain activities. Bad choices come out when they try to speed up the process. As little research has been done on fetal alcohol and it’s effects, but worthwhile to think about if you are a person who needs to interact with fetal alcohol affected children (and adults). More choices (and speedy choices) in this case, might be a big contributor to “stupid” decisions and angry and anxious emotions.


The dorsolateral PFC also is involved with the working memory of your brain. The working memory is the “scratchpad” in the brain. It can usually hold about 7 pieces of information (such as a telephone number). However, fetal alcohol children often have impaired working memory. Therefore, when you have a deluge of choices coming at a rapid rate, those pieces of information start to “fall of” of the scratchpad. What sticks is one random, non-logical choice.


Given this information how could you as a parent, teacher, therapist, social worker, friend help a person with fetal alcohol?

Limit the number of choices in your questions:

Do not ask: Do you want these nice green socks, pretty blue socks, the checker ones are cool too, or how about these with colorful stripes down the side?

Do ask: do you want the green or the blue socks?

Do not ask: When do you want to eat dinner?

Do ask: Do you want to eat now or in 20 minutes?

Do not ask: Do you want to read a book?

Do ask: Do you want to read a book on the iPad or from the library?

Practice good decision making and sifting through choices as frequently as possible:

Do not ask: When is your room finally going to be clean?

Do ask: How can I help you with planning and cleaning up your room?

Do not ask: What were you thinking when you did not call me after the car broke down?

Do ask: Who could you have called when the car broke down and why?

Limit the number of distractions:

Do not: have the TV, computer, and iPod on while she tries to study.

Do: turn TV, computer, and iPod off when she tries to study.

Do not: give her a book and expect her to read it independently.

Do: give her an iPad and open the reading app and sit with her as she reads it 5 pages out loud and 5 pages to herself. Look at the eReading: Gulliver’s Travels app, for example. They can wear a headset which reduces distration and focus on just reading, looking at the illustrations, turning the page, and listen to the narrator.


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