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Why it’s so hard to make decisions

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

I’m a ditherer. Honestly, I find decision making an incredibly arduous task. It makes little difference whether the decision I need to make is insignificant or momentous; even when there are only two options available I’m just as likely to dither, engaging in some rudimentary cost-benefit analysis before redundantly going over the choices again and still failing to decide. I’m getting better at it, however, first because I’ve made it my goal to find out more about it, and second, because I’ve found a way to reduce the dithering (and the answer is buried in the first point).

There is a thought experiment attributed to the fourteenth-century French philosopher Jean Buridan that goes something like this:


A donkey that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely at the midway point between a stack of hay and a bucket of water. Faced with the dilemma of whether to drink or eat, the donkey chooses to do nothing at all and dies of both hunger and thirst.


Even a seemingly binary choice has three real options, the third being to do nothing at all. This probably doesn’t matter with most of the choices we’re presented with, for example, if we should have the latte instead of the cappuccino. But what if the stakes are much higher? What if the situation is one of life or death? We can’t, like Buridan’s ass, decide not to make a choice.

How do we decide?

Human beings have a tendency to behave in ways that minimise losses. Indeed, the emotions we experience in losing something are often more acute than those felt when we gain something; our dismay at losing £10 is greater than our joy and finding £10. This means that making a choice is easier if the intention is to minimise losses, even if the decision is a risky one. We see this behaviour in habitual gamblers, who continue to place high stakes bets even when they’re losing, but we also witness this in other areas as well, such as the corporation that continues with the strategy even though it isn’t working.

This behaviour of throwing good money after bad is what psychologists call the sunk-cost effect. The chances are that we have invested time, effort or money into the strategy we have chosen, so we feel invested in it even if the strategy isn’t working. On a more individual level, we might have invested time in helping to secure the victory of a political party; even if they don’t live up to their promises, we still continue to support them because we want to see returns on our investment.

This is all well and good, but what is it that prevents us from making the decision in the first place?

We might simply be risk-averse, that is, we have a greater desire for certainty and this can often be achieved by simply abstaining from the decision making process altogether. This is what we describe as status quo bias, the tendency to try and keep things the same, even if the current situation is less than favourable — a difficult present is often preferable to a potentially worse future.

Of course, dithering has a greater impact when the choices we have to make are high stakes. In these situations, we might find that option A is only marginally better than option B, yet not choosing A or B is the worse decision of all. But so-called decision inertia is a common problem in high stakes situations, including critical incidents and in the aftermath of natural disasters. It’s also a problem in other situations and has become a major issue in regards to the UK government plans to exit the European Union (Brexit).

The ambiguity of Brexit perhaps amplifies indecision. On the one hand, we have ambiguity over the process, that is, there are many different Brexit scenarios and there is little agreement on which one is best (so-called hard and soft options, as well as all those in between). Without an unambiguous and generally agreed end-goal, it’s not surprising that decision inertia has set in.

Another problem with Brexit is the contradiction between honouring the result of the referendum and doing what is best to safeguard the economy, and the two not being mutually exclusive. As a result, the UK government has dithered, delayed and stalled having to make any decision, and now time is running out.

There is also a cost to be paid for making the wrong decision. Nobody wants to experience the regret of choosing the wrong option and having to live with consequences. The easiest way to avoid regret is to choose neither option.

How to avoid decision inertia

Reducing decision inertia and dithering less is quite straightforward, although it does require some effort.

It involves an effort to formalise goal-directed behaviour. I’ve written extensively about goals within educational contexts in both The Emotional Learner and Psychology in the Classroom, and again in my forthcoming book Being Buoyant, so it comes as no surprise that setting achievable and realistic goals that avoid ambiguity can help us to make better decisions.

Just as important as the goals themselves, are the manner in which we divide larger goals into smaller sub-goals. This allows us to concentrate on small, manageable tasks that lead us towards core goal completion.

Goal pursuit also helps us to cope better with setbacks because we factor the possibility into the overall plan. This reduces indecision by helping us to feel more comfortable with failure because we know how to bounce back and remain on track.

I’ve written a guide on setting goals here.

I’m still a ditherer, after all, we are all a work in progress, yet I’m beginning to feel more confident with the decisions I make. They are still sometimes way of the mark and I’ve lost count of the number of decisions I regret, yet I think things may well have been much worse if I had decided to do nothing.





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