Insight of the Week

Show 4 Options or Fewer in Choices

Four items are a critical threshold in choice overload because of an ability called parallel individuation.

Nick Kolenda
Last updated February 2, 2024
Staring at 4 options


Humans feel choice overload.

Too many options? We give up.

But how many is too many? I think 4 options is the threshold.

Look at these squares:

4 blue squares

You see 4 items. But your brain doesn't need to count them. It knows that 4 items exist immediately. It's called parallel individuation (Gallivan et al., 2011).

Humans possess this ability up to 4 items, but it collapses with 5 items:

5 blue squares

Five items are a critical threshold in which options feel like "a lot" — an unknown quantity that is large enough to require counting.

Therefore, choices feel difficult with 5+ options.

How to Apply It

What if you need to show 5+ options?

Well, you just need to group them.

Consider this navigation menu on HubSpot:

Menu with 4 sections

It groups 12 links into 4 sections.

This choice is now two mini-decisions:

  1. Which section should I view? (4 options)
  2. Which link should I click? (3 options)
Menu section with 3 links

Despite 12 options in total, this choice feels easy because each mini-decision stays within the confines of parallel individuation.

The Takeaway: Categorize options into small groups that contain no more than 4 options. Even randomly assigned groups can work (Mogilner, Rudnick, & Iyengar 2008).


  1. Specific Searches. Choice overload is less prevalent when people are looking for a specific option. It's called top-down attention.
  2. Pleasurable Choices. Contemplating each item in a restaurant menu could feel good. In this scenario, perhaps more options are better.

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