By Vasundhara Sawhney
Aug. 23, 2021
Every time I’m faced with a tough decision, I want someone else to tell me what to do. Why does this happen?
I realize making tough calls is, well, tough — especially when we’re just starting out in our careers and have to make difficult choices about which job or career path feels right. How can we make these kinds of choices with more confidence?
I reached out to Serena Hagerty (a doctoral student at Harvard Business School) and Kate Barasz (an associate professor at ESADE Business School in Barcelona). Serena and Kate recently published a paper on just how far people will go to dodge a tough decision. They found that people may hope for relatively worse news in an effort to preemptively avoid subjectively difficult decisions, and that people are also willing to put themselves in an objectively worse position to absolve themselves of the choice.
Thankfully, Kate was able to help me work through a few of my questions.
Q: Why do so many people have a strong aversion to making difficult decisions?
A: Decision-making can be stressful. Some decisions are stressful because they’re just plain hard. These might be choices with very high stakes or extensive consequences, and/or those that deal with unsavory or particularly disagreeable options.
But unfortunately for all of us, the stress that comes with decision-making isn’t confined to a special category of “difficult decisions” that we face only intermittently. There are all kinds of factors that can make even low-stakes, everyday decisions difficult and stressful.
For instance, we have a hard time choosing when there are too many options (what should I eat for lunch?), when we’re tired or pressed for time (signing up for a course whose deadline is an hour away) and when we’re dealing with a novel domain that leaves us less-than-certain about our preferences (a relocation choice between two cities you’ve never lived in).
Because we’re all wired differently, we can experience this process in different ways — meaning that what seems like a horribly hard decision for me might be totally straightforward and easy for you.
Regardless, a common theme is people are averse to making (objectively and subjectively) difficult choices because they don’t want the stress of weighing all the options or the responsibility of dealing with the eventual outcome — both good and bad. It makes us not want to make hard choices and come up with all kinds of adaptive ways of avoiding them.
Q: It seems as if the burden of choice is a privilege.
A: Yes, I totally agree with that statement. I say something to this effect to my MBA students at the end of every semester. So many people in the world would kill to have more options and the freedom of choice, yet those who get it and when they have too many choices, they feel burdened.
The burden also comes from the increased effort required to collect all relevant information to make the decision or choice. You don’t want to miss out on anything. It can be exhausting. And yet, after you’ve made a decision, you’re probably thinking, “Did I miss an important piece of information while making the decision?” But at least you’re privileged to be able to choose versus those who do not have the resources to do so.
Q: What are the behavioral manifestations of this? Why do we not want the onus to lie on us?
A: Researchers have uncovered a number of ways that people cope with hard decisions. Many of them are geared at alleviating our anticipated regret or future sense of personal responsibility for making the “wrong” choice. For example, people might delegate the difficult decision to someone else — think asking a doctor to make a difficult treatment choice for you, or having a waiter make the final call between two entrées you’re considering. They might also defer a decision — “Ugh, I’ll just think about it again next month” — or stick with the status quo to avoid actively choosing anything at all.
In our work, we found that — in order to preemptively avoid a situation in which a difficult choice may arise — some people actually hope for worse news. For instance, in one study, we asked people to imagine seeking treatment for a tendon tear in their shoulder. If the tear length were severe enough, surgery would be medically necessary; below that threshold, surgery would be optional and the ultimate treatment decision would be left to them. In other words, a worse injury would entail a situation in which there’s no choice — surgery is mandatory — while a better one would introduce a potentially fraught treatment decision.
We found that a significant number of people said they would prefer a worse injury — one that was just over the threshold for mandatory surgery — so that they wouldn’t find themselves facing the hard choice.
Q: How do we handle tough decisions better?
A: The first thing is to recognize and be mindful of all the (sometimes unconscious) ways you might be sneakily trying to avoid tough choices — asking the other person what they’d do, or hoping for bad news.
For example, you can try to mitigate the sometimes misguided coping mechanisms you might be adopting by getting clear about your own preferences. You can do this by consulting third-party experts on the subject, talking to a trusted family member or colleague or just spending time with your own pros-and-cons list. Research also suggests flipping a coin to determine the outcome; enlightenment comes when the coin is midair, and you realize what it is that you’re actually hoping for.
Next, figure out ways of easing your decisional conflict. Understand that it’s probably better to get “better” news that still entails a hard choice, rather than “worse” news that eliminates that choice.
Lastly, find support. Telling people that you’re grappling with a tough decision is helpful because it may not always be obvious. If, for instance, you receive “better news” (two job offers or two overlapping dinner invitations) rather than “worse news” (one offer or one invitation), friends and family may be less likely to anticipate your difficult decision-making predicament, and probably less likely to spontaneously offer their support if you don’t voice that predicament.
Q: For me, the toughest is when I need to select from options that are difficult to compare. I find myself overthinking … a lot! What role does regret have in this decision or choice paralysis?
A: A leading role, for sure. When it comes to regret, there’s a chicken-and-egg situation: Hard decisions make us anticipate regret, and anticipating regret makes decisions hard. If we think we might one day regret the outcome of our choice, we have a harder time pulling the trigger. We might wish we had chosen differently, have lower satisfaction with our choices and start down the path of “what if?”
Q: Is there an easier way?
A: When we can reduce anticipated regret, decisions become easier. Other researchers have found that choice closure — or taking steps to reframe your choice as final — can help reduce regret and increase choice satisfaction. Simple examples could include closing the menu after you’ve chosen your entrée, or not continuously checking on how a company is doing after you’ve rejected their job offer. So, in other words: acceptance.
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