Is more choice always desirable? Evidence and arguments from leks, food selection, and environmental enrichment



Recent studies on humans show that too much choice can make subjects less likely to choose any item. I consider general adaptive and non-adaptive explanations of why such choice aversion, or its converse, might occur in animals. There are three questions: is more choice always preferred, does it ever lead to less consumption (or a lower probability of consumption), and may it result in worse items being selected? A preference for choice is one of the main explanations for lek formation and I draw attention to previously unrecognised parallels with models of human shopping behaviour. There is indeed evidence of female preference for larger leks, although much of the observational data are open to other interpretations. Unfortunately nobody has looked for choice aversion where it is most to be expected, in leks larger than normally occur. Evidence that too much choice of males confuses females is strongest in acoustically advertising frogs, but the widespread decrease of mating skew in larger leks might also have this explanation. A model reanalyses data on skew in black grouse Tetrao tetrix and suggests that considering only a random subset of a large lek may increase the chances of selecting the better males: larger leks are more likely to include better males, but these are less likely to be selected. These opposing effects may lead to an optimum lek size, but only with a sufficient decline in choice accuracy with size. With food choice, very few studies have avoided confounding choice with food quality, by manipulating only flavour. The widespread phenomena of stimulus-specific satiety and novelty seeking imply that monotonous diets are aversive, but no studies test whether animals choose sites where they know food diversity to be greater. Operant experiments that demonstrate mild preferences for free choice concern choice about the means to get food rather than the food itself. In some insect species even moderate choice of diet can be deleterious, and studies on search images and the confusion effect may be evidence of this in vertebrates. Environmental enrichment of captive animals often relies on increasing the options available, but it need not be the choice itself that is beneficial. I consider briefly further areas in biology where choice preference or aversion are potentially important.