Of course, there is such a thing as too many options—the classic paradox of choice. A novel-length menu is just as likely to stress you out as to fill you with a ballooning sense of possibility. To combat this problem, in recent years, many chain restaurants have started to pare down their menus to make them a little more bite-sized, if you will, as The Washington Post reported in 2014.
And research has shown that a large number of options makes people both less likely to pick something at all, and less satisfied with their choice if they do pick something. “It’s like me going into the cereal aisle in the grocery store,” Zellner says. “There’s an entire aisle of cereal. You can’t possibly pick a cereal. It takes more energy to do that. In general, it’s kind of aversive to people.”
Viewed this way, mass customization doesn’t make much sense. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the rise of fast-casual restaurants, like Panera, Chipotle, and Sweetgreen, which allow you to create your own combo, burrito, and salad, respectively. Places like these walk you through the customization process without subjecting you to lengthy fine-print menus.
That also may just be easier for the restaurants. “There’s just so many people now who will go into a restaurant and say, “I can’t have gluten, dairy, or mushrooms, just because they don’t like them,” Zellner says. “To some degree it becomes easier to have a restaurant where you just have components. People can tell you what they want to put in it, you put it in, and you’re done.”
Once you’ve customized your Goldilocks order (you know, the one that’s juuuuust right), you may just stick with it and make it your usual. One way to think about it is that your Starbucks order is to some small degree a marker of your identity, like the clothes you wear or the TV shows you choose to watch. And the more options there are, the more identities are for sale. Each time you order in this case, “You’re reaffirming your identity,” Egan says.
But it may also be that once you’ve expended all that decision-making energy customizing your order the first time, you’re just going to stick with it to make things easier the next time.
“That’s a pretty common decision-making strategy,” Zellner says. “These places force you to make a decision initially, but after that the easiest thing to do is just to get what you’ve always gotten.”
The U.S. is a nation of snackers and restaurant-goers and delivery-orderers, as Egan writes in her book, as well as a nation of individualists, many of whom have some hang-ups about food. And so food companies bend over backwards to give you five different kinds of beans to put in your burrito, or to offer vegan or gluten-free or low-sugar options, or to make Maui Onion-flavored potato chips (not to be confused with Oʻahu Onion potato chips, get your head in the game!). But the irony there, Egan points out, is that “the most guaranteed way to really customize and personalize your food is to make it yourself.”
* A previous version of this story misidentified the Sheetz CEO as Jeff Sheetz. He is Joe Sheetz. We regret the error.