How to not be overwhelmed by decisions
A behavioral scientist offers advice for making choices easier.
If you freak out over decisions – what to study, what job to take, who to date, where to live – you're not alone. I, for instance, struggle with at least two or three decisions on a daily basis. I'll fret for an hour over whether to go to a party or stay in. You can imagine my distress when big decisions roll around; picking my class schedule in college was a nightmare every semester.
"Decisions are overwhelming," explained Dan Ariely, an Israeli behavioral economist who studies human decision-making and, apparently, is willing to validate my indecisiveness. "Many of them are big, and many of them have a lot of opportunities for regret."
Exactly, I thought. That's why I was asking him for advice, not just for me, but for everyone like me: how do you avoid getting overwhelmed by choices?
Sometimes people need help from other people, Ariely explained. He described one study that compared pregnant American parents-to-be with pregnant French parents-to-be who were giving birth to very sick children. In France, the doctors told the parents whether or not they should keep the baby. In the U.S., the doctors told parents the facts and left the decision up to them.
"You're the parent, you decide," said Ariely, a professor at Duke University. Apparently "the customer is always right" applies to healthcare in the U.S. (which probably doesn't shock you if you're American).
The researchers kept up with the parents. "No matter what happened, the American parents were more miserable," Ariely said. "They get to wake up every day for the rest of their lives and wonder if they did the right thing or the wrong thing."
That's the strange thing about choice: it's often a burden. "Sometimes just having to make a choice creates a tremendous cost," Ariely went on. That's why he says it's good to have a "scapegoat" – someone else who can make the choice for you. Even if that isn't always possible, talking to someone else about your choice can help you feel like the burden isn't entirely on you.
And then, there's always the foolproof way to make a decision: putting a big X in your calendar.
"Give yourself a timeframe," Ariely explained. Say to yourself, "I'm not going to torture myself forever."
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