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Articles by Deirdre V. Lovecky, Ph.D.

The Art of Making a Good Decision

There are so many choices these days. Walk thorough any store. Look at any magazine. Even e-mail offers a thousand ads. How is one to know what to choose?

Once upon a time it was easy. Take butter for example. There was only one kind, what people made by themselves at home. On the other hand, even then, it wasn’t so easy. People had these secret things called recipes. Go to any church social, or any holiday celebration where people shared food, and there were sure to be choices.

When I was a child, we wore uniforms to school. That didn’t make choice any easier. You would think that with exactly the same clothes everyone would have exactly the same choices, but that wasn’t so. There were always accessories. I can just see people in cave days when they only had one skin to wear all the time. Ah then, which leaves should they wear at the waist, which flowers twine into the hair?

So, there have always been choices, no getting around it. The problem comes when there are too many choices.

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Overwhelmed by the Options

What it means to have too many choices also varies. Some people feel overwhelmed by picking between two things. Others can have an almost infinite seeming variety and do well. It also depends on what the choice is. Aaron, for example, age 13, saved his bar mitzvah money to buy a computer. He carefully researched all the computers there were, reading magazines, going to computer stores, thinking about just what features he wanted in a computer. He decided the most important aspect was a high capability to play games and be able to play them on the Internet. So, he chose a fast computer with a lot of memory, and felt very happy with his choice. On the other hand, he had immense difficulty choosing a topic for the 8th grade science fair. Nothing appealed to him. He didn’t like science anyway, especially the earth science they were studying in school. Choosing a topic was agony, mostly because Aaron didn’t want to do a science project anyway. Finally, he chose to illustrate Fibonacci spirals and how they are found in nature using the Chambered Nautilus as a main example. He got the idea, using his new computer, from a website on Fibonacci numbers, a kind of number pattern in which each term is the sum of the two predecessors.

The Consequences of Making the Wrong Decision

Some people have trouble with making choices because they hate to make a decision. They are afraid of the consequences of making the wrong decision. To them, there is a mysterious right decision that they need to find, and they haven’t a clue about how to do so, or what the decision might be. The idea that they should pick something based on preference or pros and cons is just as frightening. How do they know they have truly found what they prefer? Suppose later on, they find something else is better and now it’s too late? Suppose they think they have weighted all the variables but they misjudged the importance of a pro or con? Suppose they make a mistake? People who have trouble making decisions fear mistakes. They hate being wrong.

People who have trouble making decisions act as if mistakes are irrevocable. Elisa has trouble with even the simplest of decisions, what to eat for lunch for example, because she feels she needs to leave her choices open. She doesn’t know how she’ll feel at lunchtime so if she packs a ham and cheese sandwich at 8 am, she may not want it at noon. That she could get something else to eat is hard for her to see. She doesn’t see that there may be many chances to change her mind, and if sometimes she can’t, it won’t be a disaster. Suppose she gets to lunchtime, doesn’t want ham and cheese and has no money? There are lots of other things to do including swapping with someone else, waiting until she is more hungry, eating it anyway, or eating the part of the sandwich that she might feel like (the cheese for example).

Choice as a Commitment

Another problem with making decisions has to do with seeing choices as things to be done, rather than as opportunities to explore. Making decisions sometimes means making a commitment to a choice and sticking with it, but often there is an opportunity to find out something new, either about oneself, or about another person or topic. Having an opportunity to find out something can make decisions fun. Unfortunately people who have trouble with decision-making see opportunity as another trap.

People who have trouble with opportunity have trouble with commitment. They are afraid to take the chance they might not like something. They only want opportunities they find comfortable. Thus, they try to avoid discomfort at all costs. To them the worst thing is not to like something. They can’t go with the flow or do the thing anyway. To do something they need to like it. The doableness of the task is embedded in their liking, not in the task itself, and that affects whether they can make a decision to do the task.

 
 
 

Learning to Choose

Teaching people to make good decisions is difficult. There are several methods that can be tried, however, to help someone who cannot make a choice.

One way to make decisions is to leave things to chance. This may mean waiting until something is decided one way or another by fate or the environment. It also can mean taking a more active role in seeking the help of fate. For example, one could put each choice on a piece of paper and put them all in a handy receptacle and pull one out. That is the choice one lives with. A variation is to use the children’s rhyme: eeney-meeney-miney-moe. If the one that is chosen feels wrong then eliminate it and try again. The one that feels right, or the final item is the choice.

People who are afraid of being wrong need to work on worst-case scenarios. What is the worst that could happen if the choice is dead wrong? Can anything be salvaged? Since part of the problem is the fear of humiliation at making a mistake, that also needs to be taken into account. If any bad choice, no matter how minor, leads to extreme humiliation, then the feelings of humiliation need to be part of the decision process. Often people who feel humiliation at being wrong tend to feel an exaggerated version of feelings. Thus, there is no such thing as a little humiliation. Any error brings on a load of self-negation and anger.

Dealing with humiliation as a consequence of a mistake means that few decisions are made. It doesn’t help the person to point out to them how silly their humiliation is, or that they needn't feel this way. They already do. What they need instead is a way to decrease the negative feeling associated with decisions. This requires a two-pronged approach. One prong is to have them make tiny decisions they already can do, and take time to feel the positive feelings associated with having made the choice (not with the result, just with making the choice. It’s important to disconnect the feeling from the result). The second prong is to prepare for bad feelings. How can negative feelings be decreased or tolerated until they dissipate? One way to prepare is to rehearse doing a thing and having it turn out well. Using script, sort of like in a play, the person and a helpful other can rehearse what the choice is, how to make it and how to feel about making it. If the results are negative, they can rehearse alternatives and feelings that would go with them. If results are positive, they rehearse feeling positive about having gone through the process that leads to the good decision. Another aspect of this is replaying past decisions and dissecting them for cues about when feelings of humiliation or anger started. Rehearse the choice as if the feeling were less intense. Over time, with practice, the feelings will become less intense.

Some people have trouble with making decisions because they have trouble setting priorities. To them every choice looks about the same, and there is no way to tell what makes one better than another. Some of these folks then impulsively pick a choice. This results in poor judgment since they pick the choice that stood out in some way - it was novel or interesting or highly stimulating but not necessarily helpful. Others can’t pick anything at all because they feel they have no basis for picking. Both groups of people need help in learning how to weigh pros and cons, look at practical aspects, see the longer-term advantages, or note the big picture. Prioritizing into different types of categories can be helpful. Rank order choices by feasibility. Put them in order of how much fun they will be to do.

If a person really loves novelty and stimulation can they envision how each choice could be made interesting? For example, Aaron, who had trouble with the science fair project, had much less trouble when he was able to reframe the problem into something other than: “I hate science.” Instead, he had to say, “I love...” and the answer was math. Doing a math science project was not nearly so objectionable, and he decided he could have fun looking up math topics on his computer, another positive. This allowed Aaron to find out about the topic he finally chose.

Reframing the decision can often help if the person making the choice can see a positive instead of only the negative. “Suppose making a mistake doesn’t matter?” “Suppose you didn’t feel humiliated?” This frees the person to look at ideas, and choices in which making a mistake might not matter.

Finally, it can help a person who has a fear of making choices to list all the choices they make every day without anything bad happening, from getting up, eating, going to school or work, to what shows they watch on television. Fortunately, it is impossible for anyone to exist without making at least some choices. From those choices already mastered, it is always possible to make more.

It is surprising how fast most people can acclimate to having a lot of choice. People who come to the US from countries with few material goods soon learn to acquire things. Few children have any trouble thinking of toys they want. Most people get used to thinking of what they like. Soon, many things become habit. There can be 25 choices of toothpaste, but there is only one you buy. Of course if that one stops being made, then the choice needs again to be confronted, at last until a new brand is selected.

It might seem easier sometimes to think about life in the olden days or life in a monastery in some religion in which possessions are few, but few of us would really choose to go there for long. We’d miss all our favorite things, all those things we once chose. Besides maybe our goal ought to be not having fewer choices, but allowing others more. That we can do by making good decisions about how we use our world and the things in it for all our benefit.

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