Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 254
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

The Pain of Deciding

Research reveals feelings aroused by the act of deciding and explores their impact.

If you're going to be a manager, you're going to make decisions, so you'd better get comfortable with it. That's what they tell you in college. For some managers, that's O.K.; they can do it. For others, it's a struggle, and few things signal a manager in trouble more clearly than the words: "I can't decide," when faced with an important decision.

Researchers have studied decision making for many years, and slowly but surely they're learning enough to offer helpful suggestions. The most recent contribution was made by Ziv Carmon, now at INSEAD Social Science Research Center in France. Carmon conducted a series of studies and made two important discoveries.

Imagine shopping for a new car and narrowing your choices to two very different models, a sports car and a pickup truck. Each vehicle offers distinct advantages. The sports car offers fun zipping around town. The pickup offers utility in helping you accomplish work.

If you think about these choices long enough, you'll begin to enjoy owning both vehicles in your imagination. One minute you'll imagine impressing people with your flashy car, and the next minute you'll feel the relief of having a vehicle to help you with yard chores. Of course you don't own either vehicle yet, but with both vehicles offering the potential to deliver these benefits, your imagination can give you many enjoyable fantasies.

Then you choose. You buy one of them.

Once you act on your decision, all the benefits of the rejected choice are lost, and that loss hits some people pretty hard. They feel bad. They really do. The very act of deciding did it to them, and this bad feeling can be strong or weak.

Carmon's findings revealed several conditions of decision making that make this negative feeling strong, and two of these are illustrated in the car purchasing decision described above: taking a long time to decide and elaborating on the choices.

People elaborate on decision choices when they imagine themselves enjoying a choice, i.e. zipping around town in the sports car. We elaborate on vacation choices when we imagine the sun warming us on the black sands of Diamond Head Beach or when we feel the cool, thin air in our lungs and see the high snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains.

Taking a long time to decide and elaborating on choices can easily be corrected. We can limit the time we devote to a decision, and we can discipline our imaginations to limit our daydreams. However, Carmon discovered three additional conditions of decision making that also arouse this negative affect.

Imagine standing before winged mirrors in a clothing store holding two suits alternately under your chin, one in your right hand and one in your left. Both are fine choices, but one will be rejected. Because the rejected choice is close by, right in your hand, it's more likely that the decision will arouse some pain. This is the first additional condition.

Now imagine that you own both suits, but you are giving one to your son who just happens to be your size. Since you already own the suit and are parting with it, it's more likely that you'll find the decision to be painful. This is the second.

Finally, imagine you are choosing between enjoyable choices, for example skis or golf clubs, rather than useful ones like a lawn mower or a snow blower. Since the choices are enjoyable, it's more likely that the decision will bring discomfort.

Pain in decision making brings avoidance, so we delay making decisions, which actually increases the pain. It is in this way that people become indecisive.

Carmon's final finding revealed a flaw in the process of evaluating choices: Once a choice is lost, its value seems to increase. He demonstrated it repeatedly in his experiments, and he believes this effect is caused by the negative feelings revealed in his first finding: Because the rejection of a choice hurts, we must have been wrong in our evaluation of it. Since we feel pain in its loss, it must have been a better choice after all.

This process treats feelings as information, information that is important in the decision process which it is not, and Carmon warns us against its influence. Feelings are feelings, and in this case they are aroused from the act of deciding, not from a mistake in the evaluation process that preceded it.

Reference: Carmon, Ziv, Klaus Wertenbroch, and Marcel Zeelenberg (2003) Option Attachment: When Deliberating Makes Choosing Feel like Losing. Journal of Consumer Research, 30 (June), 15-29.

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