Have trouble making decisions? You’re not alone

By Angela Hayes, Ph.D.

Have you ever wondered why students who are undecided in their major or those in a major who need to pick an area of concentration, often have such a difficult time making a choice? Have you ever wondered why you or other adults can have such a difficult time deciding on a career path? One reason could be what MIT Behavioral Economist Dr. Dan Ariely terms our “irrational predictability.” In his book, “Irrationally Predictable: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions” he discusses just how bad we are at making choices. The book is full of fascinating practical applications of his research. Dr. Ariely makes the point that we all have a penchant for keeping our options open, usually way too many options for way too long, even when it becomes obvious that it’s not helping us, and even hurting us.

book coverHe conducted a series of experiments with college students in which they played a computer game that gave them cash for looking for money behind three doors on the screen. Each player had 100 clicks total to use. After opening a door by clicking on it, each click inside that “room” gave them additional cash, with a varied sum each time. Players could click on doors to switch “rooms” to search for those with higher pay-offs, but each switch used up a click. It was quickly apparent to the players that the best strategy was to find the room with the highest pay-offs and continue to use their clicks there. However, an interesting thing happened when a new feature was added. The participants noticed that when they stayed out of a room, the door would begin to shrink and would eventually disappear completely. When you think about the students you know who have been indecisive, I’m sure you can predict what happened next. The best strategy, in terms of pay-off, was for students to ignore the shrinking doors with the lower pay-offs. But they were absolutely unable to make themselves ignore those doors. In fact, they wasted so many clicks frantically jumping from door to door in order to keep all doors open that their overall earnings dropped by more than 15%. Then another wrinkle was added and students had to pay a cash penalty for clicking to keep the lower pay-out doors open, yet they still kept clicking on those low pay-off doors rather than let them disappear, sometimes cancelling out any gains they originally earned. Then, the most interesting twist was introduced. Students were allowed to bring back a door that had vanished any time they wanted, at no cost. Paradoxically, they still frantically worked to make sure that no doors disappeared. The researchers interviewed the participants and learned that it wasn’t just that they cared about keeping their options open; it was that they were trying to avoid the pain of watching a door disappear. According to Dr. Ariely, “Closing a door on an option is experienced as a loss, and people are willing to pay a price to avoid the emotion of loss.”

When talking with your college student children who are frantic to “keep doors open”, it can be useful to ask them powerful coaching questions to help them arrive at a clearer view of what they are losing by not making a choice. You can ask yourself the same questions, if you are having difficulty making a decision about a career path, which job to take, etc. Here are some examples:

“What is the pay-off for not making a decision right now?”

“Are you losing anything by not making a decision now?” (Sometimes they need to be prompted to think through things like wasted time, missed opportunities, etc.).

“What will happen if you continue on, just as you are?”

“If you secretly somehow knew what’s holding you back, what would it be?”

“Imagine for a minute that this issue was completely resolved and the decision made. How did you get there?”

“What would you say the problem is in one sentence? How about in one word?”

“Who could you talk to who would illuminate this issue?”

“What research could you do that would help you move toward the first step?”

As we discussed in an earlier post, change can be very painful because it represents a loss of what was. Once a person becomes unstuck, we can show them that it also means the beginning of what can be.

Get the book: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions, 2010, by Dr. Dan Ariely

Sample coaching questions from: 549 Powerful Coaching Questions: Helping You Help Your Clients Grow by Emma-Louise Elsey of http://www.thecoachingtoolscompany.com

Angela Hayes, Associate Director of Alumni and Online Career Engagement

ANGELA HAYES serves as the Associate Director of Alumni and Online Career Engagement. Prior to coming to CSU, she worked as the Assistant Director of Alumni and Graduate Student Career Services at Kansas State University. She has a B.S. in psychology, an M.S. in industrial/organizational psychology and a Ph.D. in professional coaching and human development. She’s a nationally Board Certified Coach and a nationally Certified Health and Wellness Coach.

She has a passion for helping others to see their lives as full of possibilities and un-tapped potential. She views changes/transitions (both planned and unplanned) as opportunities for individuals to discover and plan out what they really want from their careers and lives.