Decision making, on paper, should be a pretty straightforward process. You make a decision, and then you follow through with that decision. Boom. Done. Easy.
Of course, things are rarely ever that simple.
Social standards and our perceived reputations often distort our thought processes. Emotions frequently short circuit the rational part of our brain. Instant gratification also exists. Our intuitions can be misleading at times. There’s mob mentality and that whole thing about how being in a group diminishes our individualism and therefore our ability to make decisions on our own accord.
All things considered, decision making has a lot going on and it’s really not that easy.
But at the same time, some people are killing themselves over decisions that are really not that complex or require that much thought.
Like, come on. Just pick something and move on with your life. It’s not that hard.
Going into this topic, however, it’s important to keep in mind that, of course, all decisions are not made equally.
The gravity of a decision is ultimately subjective, in the sense that two individuals placed in the same situation may not assign the same decision the same amount of importance, whether that’s due to their personal beliefs or other factors. And it follows that the same decision between those two individuals might be easier or harder to make depending on the person.
For example, one student might be torn between taking an honors class or it’s regular variant, perhaps because they are interested in learning about the subject, but don’t want to be bogged down by the workload in the honors course. But another student might look at the two options and immediately choose the honors class because it’s a subject that they already like.
With the subjective aspect of decision making out of the way, let’s talk about why you clicked on this post in the first place: you want to know how to make a decision.
Well, actually, I can do whatever I wan-
Do people actually use pro/con lists to facilitate their decision making? Maybe I’m just really misinformed, but I can’t fathom people taking time out of their day to physically write pro/con lists down. This is all I can imagine:
Ok, but seriously though, the main reason why this first step is purposely ambiguous and not meant to even be discussed in the first place is because, as I mentioned earlier, decision making really does boil down to the individual—everyone’s life and current situation is incredibly personal and unique.
I mean, I could very easily just lazily regurgitate general techniques that everyone’s heard too many times (Talk to a friend about it! Stay calm! Play devil’s advocate!), but I don’t think that would be really helpful.
And there really are a lot of factors that go into the decision making process and I think everyone knows that. So that’s not really what I want to focus on in this post; rather, I think it’s more interesting to focus on what happens after you make a decision.
Once you’ve made a decision, the next thing that you’re going to want to do is stay committed to that decision. If possible, mentally tell yourself that you can’t back out of that decision; this is a really important measure to take for you psychologically.
Don’t believe me?
Okay, well then, imagine this: you’re nearing the end of a two week long photography class, and your professor tells the class that each student can develop two photographs that they’ve taken over these past two weeks and keep them as a parting gift.
So the class takes a trip down to the darkroom and spends an afternoon learning how to print their photographs. Afterwards, you have your two photographs in hand, ready to go home, when your professor suddenly approaches you and says:
So now you’re in this situation: you can leave the option of retracting your initial decision open, or you could just follow through with your first choice and hand your professor one of the photographs right then and there.
Instinctively, you’re probably leaning towards the former decision. The latter situation just doesn’t even seem to make sense. After all, why wouldn’t I want more choices? More options equals more flexibility and in the end I’ll be happier, right?
Okay, let’s take a step back and give this situation some context:
This photography example was taken from a 2002 report done on affective forecasting (the prediction of one’s future emotional state) by Daniel T. Gilbert and Jane E.J. Ebert.
In their study, the two told some participants that they had the option to change their photographs, and others that they were stuck with their initial choice. What the two found was that those who were granted the option of switching photographs within a certain time frame ended up less satisfied with their original choice than those who were told they couldn’t back out of their decision once they made it, when asked to rate their happiness levels on the first day of having their photograph and on the last day.
To make their study even more damning, Gilbert and Ebert also recruited 89 undergraduate students at Harvard University (55 females and 34 males) to complete a brief questionnaire. They provided the participants with all the background information of the study and then asked them a simple question:
If you were to be in the study, would you prefer to have the ability to back out and change photographs, or stay with your first choice?
66.3% of these undergraduate students (from Harvard, in case you’d forgotten) said they preferred the changeable option to the unchangeable one, and 84.3% of them believed that the average participant would pick the changeable option as well.
These results are amazing. Not only did this study show that the ability to undo our choices ultimately leads to lower levels of satisfaction, but also that most people instinctively put themselves in these situations that don’t maximize their happiness (and correctly predicted that others would place themselves in the same situation, too).
In a completely counterintuitive sense, when we are presented with two choices, it’s (usually) in our best interest to follow through with one and mentally tell ourselves that we can’t reverse that decision.
And when you commit to a decision—and what I mean by commitment is wholeheartedly believing and trusting that the decision you made was the best available one—you might later look back and realize that your original attitude regarding a situation actually changed as a result of that belief.
If you can recognize that, then congratulations: you’ve just gotten past immune neglect. Immune neglect, a term coined by our friend Gilbert, suggests that people are generally ignorant to their own psychological mechanisms that try to make the individual immune to bad situations.
You can think of this as the brain rationalizing or justifying a decision:
With either decision, Stick Figure Guy ended up feeling satisfied with the outcome. The actual decision itself wasn’t what was really important—especially because it’s such a small one— rather, what was important was the fact that Stick Figure Guy chose something and stuck with it; from there on out, it was simply a matter of justifying that decision, which he was able to do quite handily.
Whether you know it or not, your brain is always trying to paint situations in a more positive light; immune neglect is such a powerful weapon to fight indecision with, but not enough people recognize that it exists (hence, the neglect part).
So instead, a lot of people find themselves struggling with indecision, which is generally depicted something along the lines of this:
And sure, while this portrayal definitely has some truth to it, I think the underlying issue is that people hesitate with full sending (going all in), which is why they may struggle to initially pick something; after all, make a decision on something if you don’t feel confident on following it all the way through?
But as we’ve seen so far, we are psychologically built and ready to do so; it’s just a matter of trusting ourselves and the decisions we make, rather than doubting ourselves and succumbing to the ever present fear of uncertainty.
This post is just about finished, but we’ve conveniently stumbled across the topic of uncertainty in decision making, and I really want to talk about this one stupid thing I keep hearing people say, because a part of my soul dies every time I hear it:
This is a stupid sentiment. Sure, while the fear about the outcome of a decision is definitely understandable, it’s also pretty dumb when you think about it: you will never know the outcome of an action before it happens, believe it or not.
So maybe if you picked the other decision, things would have ended up worse than they actually did. Or maybe it would have ended in a better situation. No one will ever know, so there’s no point in creating more anxiety by worrying about that.
So, to summarize for those of you who felt this post was too long and didn’t read:
There are two steps to making a decision. The first is actually making the decision, and the second is committing to that decision.
We make decisions all the time, but it’s the ones that we fully commit to that actually impact our lives. We like to doubt ourselves and mistakenly believe that being able to back out of decisions is a good thing, when it actually leads to lower levels of satisfaction.
Our brain is really cool; it has all these preset mechanisms (this post only talks about immune neglect) to psychologically make ourselves feel better about our lives or whatever mess of a situation we find ourselves in. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize this, and we’re back to square one: questioning our options, fearing the unknown, and just lacking faith in our choices.
Basically: the more confidence you have in a decision, the more likely it is that that decision ends well.