‘It’s not about making the right choice.
It’s about making a choice and making it right.’
Making a decision can be very difficult. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how big or small a decision is: it is the fact that one has to be made at all which engenders an anxiety that can feel crippling at times.
Why is it so difficult to make a decision?
For well-known psychoanalyst, thinker and writer, Irwin Yalom, decision making is linked to one of his ‘Four Givens’ – one of the four underlying anxieties from which all other anxieties spring. Having to make a decision, suggests Yalom, means we have to take responsibility for our own actions – something he feels we all seek to avoid. If only we can pass the decision off to someone else, we will not have to take responsibility for the outcome. Imagine – we might even have someone else to blame if the outcome fails to go as planned.
There are other impediments to decision making. One of the most common is inertia – our natural reluctance to change our state or position. Put bluntly, it is very difficult to make the effort to move. If you need a banal example of this inertia in action, then ask yourself why so many of us choose to stay with our utility providers, mortgage or banking firms, when we know (for certain!) that we would be far better off with a new provider? Our bias towards the status quo keeps us where we are – or, as Yalom would no doubt point out – allows us to use the ‘where we are’ as a useful excuse for us not to have to make a decision at all.
Research also shows that decisions are easier when there are fewer choices. There are many studies available that demonstrate this bias in our thinking. Shoppers, for example, will buy more when presented with fewer options. As the amount of choice grows, it would seem we become burdened with the weight of the process – and end up buying nothing at all (or maybe everything!) as a response to the sense of being overwhelmed.
Finally, we should also think about the condition of decision fatigue, a condition that can feature significantly in people who are suffering burn out in work or domestic environments. If such a role or lifestyle demands that we make many, serial decisions, there may come a point where we just cannot face making another. You can understand this on a domestic level if you have been in the position where you have asked your friend or partner ‘What shall we have for dinner/ What shall we do at the weekend?’ only to hear the reply ‘I don’t mind: whatever you want.’ Having been in a position where you take decision after decision, sometimes even the most trivial (in this case, ‘what’s for tea?’) can feel like the last – and heaviest of straws.
So what can we do?
We do need to separate the decision-making process from the outcome. The latter is out of our control. In a world which currently seems to be driven by hindsight, it is a wonder how any decisions get made. But we should try to understand that good decisions can lead to poor outcomes.
For example: I toss a coin. I offer you a bet as follows: if the coin falls as ‘Heads’, I will pay you £10; if it falls as ‘Tails’, you pay me £1. Do you take the bet? Fairly easy decision, but imagine you lose ten bets in a row, do you still take the next bet? Although it would seem still an excellent decision (if your aim is to increase your funds), a concern over outcome will often emerge as a major brake on the decision-making ability. It can even collude with the bias towards inertia which we carry (spoken of above), providing a useful excuse to remain risk averse and avoid the decision entirely.
If we can put outcome to one side and concentrate on the decision itself, there are a number of practical strategies we might employ to help to make up our minds. From pros and cons list-making, to identifying our highest priorities and values in the various options, to listening to the voices of third parties, or studying the experiences of others – all of which might well bring a sense of perspective to an area which seems to be drowning in the waters of confusion and distortion. Remember, though, that there will any number of unconscious forces working to prevent that decision being made, so we have to keep in mind that by thinking these things through so carefully, we don’t provide scope to put any decision off – and thus to avoid the responsibility.
It’s only a simple decision!
If only this were true. As Yalom points out, and as our own experience confirms, the matters which lie beneath ‘a simple decision’ are complex and linked to many of the fears and anxieties we all carry as a consequence of our life experience. Lists and balance sheets may help to some degree, but if we really want to understand how to make decisions more effectively – how to take responsibility for what we want – we need to reach a better understanding of ourselves.
Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy is a collective of experienced psychotherapists, psychologists and counsellors working with a range of client groups, including fellow therapists and health professionals. If you would like more information, or an informal discussion please get in touch. Online therapy is available.