The effectiveness and quality of our decision making is of central importance to our lives. This is highlighted by its very definition in the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, which states that decision making is the "act or process of choosing a preferred option or course of action from a set of alternatives. It precedes and underpins almost all deliberate or voluntary behaviour."
Modern civilization challenges us with a variety of decisions on a minute by minute, perhaps even second by second, basis. The subject matter of these decisions can vary from relatively minor to major issues in life. Sometimes the decision is about an inherently difficult matter; for example, whether to use extreme medical interventions to prolong the life of a loved one with a terminal illness. Other times, the decision can be about something rather trivial but still we encounter much difficulty. One frequent cause of difficulty in decision making is something called analysis paralysis which is the subject of the present discussion.
Why do we have difficulty making decisions due to getting stuck in analysis paralysis?
All of us have experienced at some time difficulty in making decisions. I remember clearly having a luncheon meeting with two psychological colleagues who I had just met shortly after moving to Kuala Lumpur from Hong Kong. I suggested we go out for dim sum which had become my regular luncheon fare in Hong Kong where it is a culinary specialty. There ensured a lively and unending discussion by my colleagues about the best dim sum place in town. Finally I had to intervene to bring the decision making to a conclusion as I gently nudged them about the time. I was worried about ever getting to whatever restaurant we finally chose! They looked at each other, laughed, and within seconds picked a 5 star hotel in the Kuala Lumpur City Centre.
In this case the main source of the difficulty was something which has been labelled "analysis paralysis". Although there are many different possible reasons for ineffective decision making, the purpose here is to explicate analysis paralysis and how to minimize this particular kind of difficulty.
Although "analysis paralysis" is a modern expression, the condition it describes has been known and discussed since ancient times. For example, Aesop, a very wise man who lived in Greece about 2500 years ago, illustrated analysis paralysis poignantly in his fable "The Fox and the Cat". The fox brags of having hundreds of ways of escaping hounds and mocks the cat for having only one. But when unexpectedly the hounds came running, the cat easily decides to climb up a tree but the "wily" fox cannot make up his mind which of the many options he ought to choose and met his end. Aesop ends his tale with the moral, "Better one safe way than a hundred on which you cannot reckon".
Ways to stop analysis paralysis
Before discussing specific ways to cope with paralysis analysis, I will briefly outline the main steps in decision making:
- Determine clearly what goal you desire to achieve. In many cases we try to make decisions without clearly articulating the goal or objective of the decision making. In my story about choosing a restaurant for dim sum, I did not actually state my specific goal; I only told my colleagues that I wanted to go for dim sum. It would have been better if I had been more specific and said I wanted to try something new. Instead I left it vague and my colleagues assumed that I was looking for the very best dim sum in KL which was not the case. Or consider the example where you have been presented with a situation which demands you make a choice between two alternative plans of action. For example to stay in your present job or to find a new one. In order to make the right decision, you must take time to understand what your goals are.
- Create possible plans of action to attain the goal. For each specific goal, create a different set of plans as to how to achieve that goal.
- Assign valence to each alternative i.e. consider the advantages and disadvantages of each alternatives developed in the above step. For example, in the case of deciding which restaurant to go, we could have considered the quality of the food, the cost, , how nice the restaurant was in terms of décor, and the distance.
- Make the decision. There are two quite different ways of carrying out the final step of decision making: 1) Satisficing: examining alternatives only until the first acceptable one is found, 2) Optimizing: examining all the alternatives to find the best option. My dim sum colleagues had tried to optimize the outcome by choosing the very best dim sum restaurant. This attempt to optimize was the main cause of the analysis paralysis.
“Every moment is a moment of decision, and every moment turns us inexorably in the direction of the rest of our lives.”
― Mary Balogh, Simply Perfect
Some suggestions to avoid analysis paralysis
Besides satisficing instead of optimizing, there are a number of other ways to avoid analysis paralysis:
- Set time limits. To avoid slipping into optimizing, set a time limit on who long the decision making can take. In the dim sum example, I set a time limit but in a gentle way by pointing to my watch.
- Be humble and realistic. As Boss pointed out in "How To Overcome The 'Analysis Paralysis' Of Decision-Making": "Nobody likes being wrong". The need to feel valued is an intrinsic human desire that manifests itself through the choices we make and how we communicate those choices to others. When it comes to making a decision, it's natural to want to be 'right'. This can lead us to want to be perfect in our decision making and hence try to optimize which increases greatly the risk of analysis paralysis.
- Curb your curiosity. "One of the culprits contributing to analysis paralysis are details; specifically, the desire to excavate deeper and deeper every new detail that arrives on scene" (Boss (2015). Again decision making requires self-control. If the information you have now answers the call, it's time to move forward. This suggestion has special importance for persons with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) which makes them vulnerable to being distracted by interesting but irrelevant details.
- HALT stands for "hungry, angry, lonely, or tired" and reminds us to avoid these states when we have to engage in decision making. These strong negative feelings or states decrease the efficiency of the parts of the brain that are involved in decision-making; these negative states should be avoided if we want to make good decisions.
- Simplify. If the decision you are trying to make is so complex that you get stuck in analysis paralysis then if possible break your decision down into two or more simpler decision making tasks.
When all else fails be Bold
Remember that occasionally, we all find it impossible to make a decision and yet we do not want to remain forever frozen in indecision. Poets and songwriters have created works to inspire us in such situations to make the step into the unknown, or "to boldly go where no man has gone before" which you probably recognize from Star Trek. Another literary quote, with a touch of humour was provided by the American inspirational writer and self made business man, Dr. Orison Swett Marden (1850-1924):
"The world is full of human lobsters; people stranded on the rocks of indecision and procrastination, who, instead of putting forth their own energies, are waiting for some grand billow of good fortune to set them afloat".
Finally consider this reflection by the Scottish mountaineer W.H. Murray:
Concerning all acts of creation there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: That the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.
All sorts of things occur to help one that would not have otherwise occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man would have dreamed would come his way.
I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets:
"Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it! Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it.
Boss, J. (2015) How To Overcome The 'Analysis Paralysis' Of Decision-Making
Copyright © 2015 Brian S. Scott