Decision Paralysis

I spotted my 10-year-old daughter curled up on the couch looking distraught.

Just hours earlier she had been bouncing around the house, all excited about her big brother coming home from college with a plan for a “special day out biking together.” What just happened?

After a bit of gentle probing, she told me she promised her best friend that she would attend her birthday party—then learned it was the same day, same time as her big-brother bike ride. She had to pick between spending the day with her brother or her friend.

“Why do I have to choose? This isn’t fair!”

She knew what was important to her, what she valued. But understanding her values of commitment, loyalty, integrity, and supporting others made the decision harder instead of easier. It was not simply that she wanted to do both activities; it was that she didn’t want to disappoint either person.

She knew that her friend was counting on her being at the party. At this age, birthday parties are a big deal and having your best friends there is an even bigger deal. Being reliable and keeping her word to her friend was very important to my daughter.

Yet, she loved spending time with her brother and now with the scarce opportunities to do so, it became not only a preferred choice but a priority. She also did not want to hurt her brother’s feelings by choosing a friend over him.

Having to choose was tortuous. So much so that she was facing decision paralysis, a state in which one cannot seem to make a decision because every option available presents a challenge, or conflicts with the option not taken.

Decision Science research explains this predicament as often based on the reliance of the Simulation heuristic, a rule of thumb judgment formed from imagining different scenarios playing out in certain ways. Decision makers construct scenes, like from a movie, imagining how another person may respond or react, the direction of a conversation, or the resulting outcome of an event. These simulations can serve us well, such as when we need to prepare for an interview, audition, make a persuasive pitch, or deliver a speech. But they can also lead us to misperceived expectations. People may actually surprise us and react quite differently than we had anticipated. What we prepared for in our minds may not materialize because we failed to consider alternative responses.

How do we work through decisions when looking to our values only makes the decision harder, or when we can only fathom a negative outcome no matter which option we choose? One method informed by Decision Science is to consider both choices simultaneously as pieces of a larger story, rather than rely on either/or, black-white, or right-wrong thinking. When taking a step back and viewing options as part of a larger picture, we suddenly see alternate strategies for mitigating perceived negative reactions and outcomes. A cognitive exercise used in behavioral consulting called From the Balcony gets us to imagine being a spectator watching the scene unfold on a stage below. By picturing yourself viewing the action from an elevated position, your perspective changes, and you automatically become more mentally and emotionally detached. This, in turn, allows for more creative solutions to manifest in your mind, and you can consider events unfolding differently than you had originally considered.

I suggested that my daughter share her dilemma with her older brother and ask him what he would do if he was faced with a similar predicament. He certainly cannot expect her to do something that he himself would not consider. She agreed, and upon having an open and honest discussion with him, he assured her that he understood, was not at all hurt, and would support her decision to attend her friend’s party. After all, he reasoned, a birthday party comes along only once a year but there are many weekends available for him to come home to be with her.

She was relieved, of course, and was able to attend her friend’s party as promised, without feeling guilty for abandoning her brother. She also felt better, and perhaps even closer to her brother, because she got to tell him how much she valued their time together and because he helped her solve a problem.

My daughter’s inner conflict hinged on the belief that her decision would cause all the parties involved to be disappointed or hurt. This assessment turned out to be inaccurate. There were other consequences worth exploring, ones which could have broken the impasse in her mind, but in the midst of her simulation heuristic she could not picture another scenario playing out. By challenging her assumptions and allowing for other perspectives “from the balcony,” she discovered that her brother was sympathetic to her dilemma, did not take her decision personally and even supported her commitment to a friend.

The idea that her brother would share her values for being reliable and keeping one’s word to a friend, had eluded her. Another consideration that she did not factor into her judgment was that the nature of her relationship with her older brother was fundamentally different from the one with her friend. She and her brother had a shared history together, had grown up in the same home with the same values, and the expectation of a lifelong friendship between them meant that temporary or isolated compromises can be weathered without fear or worry of affecting the relationship. These conditions meant that the likelihood of receiving his support would always have been forthcoming. Of course, as their mom I was confident that my son would deliver, and she would receive, his support. But it was important that she experience this decision-making process first-hand, to see how consequences can unfold very differently than expected if we are willing to challenge our underlying assumptions.

As actors working through decisions on our own stage, we should consider the spectator’s perspective, take ourselves up on the balcony so that we can gain a broader, detached and objective view. This approach can often reveal alternative strategies and solutions which otherwise might be overlooked. It can also free us from our decision paralysis, and make a tough decision seem so much more “fair.”

Pearl Gross

Pearl Gross is a Professional Development Consultant who specializes in Decision Coaching. She earned her Master in Behavioral and Decision Science from the University of Pennsylvania. She can be reached here.

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