Why is Decision-Making So Hard? (Do You Want to Know or Don’t You?)


Will you wear red or blue or maybe yellow? Should you cut your hair super short or let it grow even longer? Did you decide how you’re voting yet? Does decision-making seem like way more of a challenge than it should be? You’re not alone.

There are about ten million decisions I’ve made that I’m not so sure of. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not living a life full of regrets; it’s just that I’m not entirely sure if that menu choice I made at a restaurant last week was the very best decision. Or my high school haircut, for that matter (don’t ask, it was the ’80s). I stand by my choices because they were made in earnest, but how do I know if they were really the best ones? It’s not that I don’t want to decide, or that I’m intentionally being difficult about an issue. Sometimes, decision-making is just really, really challenging, even when it seems like it’s about something totally irrelevant. And, it turns out, decision-making is an issue for many people. Many more people than ever before.

“The skill of good decision-making has become increasingly important,” reports PsychCentral, “we have an abundance of choices, both with the simple things in life (ordering from a menu) and the serious things in life (choosing your cancer treatment).”

That wasn’t always the case for humans. We didn’t agonize over what color the cave walls were, or, if we did, there wasn’t much we could do about it, so we moved on to more important things, like deciding whether or not to run from a saber-toothed tiger. We could eat the berries we foraged or the leaves we picked, but there weren’t 87 menu items to choose from. Supposedly, my ancestors were satisfied with plain, boring unleavened bread for a good spate of time without too much fuss about it. There were no soft pretzels, cronuts or stuffed crusts to opt for instead. (That would have probably slowed the Exodus down a whole heck of a lot. Moses strikes me as having been a patient man, but you know, 600,000 people deciding between cronuts and pretzels is enough to drive anyone mad.)

But today, we’re inundated, quite obscenely, with choices. Often, they’re choices about things we don’t even want to have to consider, like whether or not Kim Kardashian’s naked ass should be on a magazine cover. Yet we’re sucked into making these choices, pulled into conversations and forced to decide where we stand on things in order to survive in modernity and at least appear like we have some idea about what’s going on in the world. We may agonize over our Facebook profile pics and status updates as much as whether or not to take a job offer, go on a date or have a child. The deeper we get entrenched into the modern world, the more decisions we have to make.

Scientists long ignored the issues connected with ambivalence and poor decision-making skills. But in recent years, the scientific community has come to realize that it’s a real issue affecting many more people than previously believed. “Researchers can’t say for sure why some people tend towards greater ambivalence,” reports the Wall Street Journal. “Certain personality traits play a role—people with a strong need to reach a conclusion in a given situation tend to black-and-white thinking, while ambivalent people tend to be more comfortable with uncertainty.”

In other words, having difficulty with decision-making may not be a bad thing, but simply an annoyance. “[T]hinking in shades of gray is a sign of maturity, enabling people to see the world as it really is,” the Journal explains. Being ambivalent about issues may not mean that you’re a wishy-washy waffler, but someone who’s more in touch with the complexities of being a human in a mighty intense world. Ambivalent people, according to the Journal, “tend to systematically evaluate all sides of an argument before coming to a decision. They scrutinize carefully the evidence that is presented to them, making lists of pros and cons, and rejecting overly simplified information.”

And sometimes we just blurt out any old thing to get it over with and then deal with the consequences later. That’s not to say that intentionally avoiding decisions is a healthy recourse, or that we should just make decisions randomly. There’s actually much to be said for trusting your gut and learning how to listen to it. Frenk van Harreveld, a social psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, told the Wall Street Journal that an easy way to listen to your gut is to flip a coin about an issue. What is your immediate reaction to the outcome of the coin landing? That gut reaction makes the choice simple.

When my baby’s home birth had to be moved to a hospital, we were suddenly given the option of having the hospital take care of all the paperwork for the birth certificate and social security card. If we had been able to give birth at home, we would have had months to deal with these tasks – which, with a list of more than 40 names at the time of her birth, we were pretty sure we’d need in order to make the important decision of what to name another human being. But with the hospital able to do all of this for us and save us a trip downtown for the birth certificate, we had just 36 hours to decide what to name our daughter, and we let our gut do the work. As we stared practically nonstop at our newborn daughter, Imogene, the rest of the names on the list didn’t feel as perfect and we leapt with our gut, filling out the paperwork with giddy relief. Fourteen months later we couldn’t be more thrilled with our choice and often joke about how she might still not have a name if we’d not have been forced to decide so quickly.

Obviously, we can’t walk around flipping coins and trying to tap into our gut sense about every single decision, can we? (It would take me forever to write this article if that were the case. And trust me, I’m already up past my bedtime.) But certainly we can take decision-making to a gut level for big issues like job offers, baby naming and other major life decisions.

Most importantly, for the wishy-washiest of us, we can feel confident in taking a critical thinking approach, particularly when it involves those big decisions–doing the research, letting the information sink in, and then trusting our gut feelings. While nowadays we’re overwhelmed with things to have opinions on almost immediately, and as many choices to boot, we also have resources at our fingertips. Sometimes, too much information can overload the decision-making process, but in most cases being better informed on an issue can make all the difference.

And for those not-so-important issues, like what to eat or wear, I say let spontaneity take the driver’s seat. Let your friend or partner or total strangers decide for you. It’s often a refreshing and weight-lifted feeling when my partner decides what I’m cooking for dinner (yes, he decides, I cook!), or when I let a waitress order for me, or when I close my eyes and pull together an outfit at random (thanks to a closet makeover, this is really, really easy now). These decisions are now a lot more like surprises, which add new elements of fun to otherwise boring and sometimes stressful aspects of life. And if there’s one decision that’s easy for me to make, it’s that a happy and stress-free life is optimal every day.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Image: Steve Webel

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.