The evil of banality: When choosing between the mundane feels like choosing between the worst.

Our most important decisions often provoke the greatest anxiety, whether we seek the better of two prizes or the lesser of two evils. Yet many of our choices are more mundane, such as selecting from a slate of mediocre but acceptable restaurants. Previous research suggests that choices of decreasing value should provoke decreasing anxiety. Here we show that this is not the case. Across three behavioral studies and one fMRI study, we find that anxiety and its neural correlates demonstrate a U-shaped function of choice set value, greatest when choosing between both the highest value and lowest value sets. Intermediate (moderate-value) choice sets provoke the least anxiety, even when they are just as difficult to select between as the choice sets at the two extremes. We show that these counterintuitive findings are accounted for by decision makers perceiving low-value items as aversive (i.e., negatively motivationally salient) rather than simply unrewarding. Importantly, though, neural signatures of these anxious reactions only appear when participants are required to choose one item from a set and not when simply appraising that set’s overall value. Decision makers thus experience anxiety from competing avoidance motivations when forced to select among low-value options, comparable to the competing approach motivations they experience when choosing between high-value items. We further show that a common method of measuring subjective values (willingness to pay) can inadvertently censor a portion of this quadratic pattern, creating the misperception that anxiety simply increases linearly with set value. Collectively, these findings reveal the surprising costs of seemingly banal decisions. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2018 APA, all rights reserved)