Paralysed by choice? It depends on what kind of decision-maker you are

For some people, making decisions can feel paralysing, while for others it barely even registers. New research suggests the level of stress we feel when making choices relates to what kind of decision-maker we are.

As you might expect, those who veer towards a quicker and more decisive way of picking between several options aren’t as likely to get stressed out by an impending choice as those who prefer to weigh up all the options before committing.

Central to the study is the idea of regulatory mode theory, and the two types of decision-makers it identifies: those who take an ‘assessment’ style approach to decisions, where each option is carefully weighed, and those who take a ‘locomotive’ approach to decisions, where change and movement and reaching an end goal are more important.

“Our research consistently demonstrated that assessment-oriented individuals… tend to experience more distress when they make decisions because of their strong concerns with doing the right thing and seeking the ‘truth'”, explains the team, comprising researchers from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and Columbia University.

“By contrast, we found that locomotion-oriented individuals tend to experience less distress during decision-making and are more eager to decide quickly and get on with the decision.”

In the study, the researchers first used a questionnaire to determine whether study participants were assessment or locomotion-oriented.

Then, across five experiments with hundreds of different volunteers, participants were tasked with making decisions in a number of scenarios, including choosing gifts, planning a wedding, voting in an election, and prioritising a to-do list.

In each circumstance, results showed it was always the assessment-style decision-makers who felt under the most pressure.

In some cases – as with the voting experiment – those who preferred to make slower assessments also ended up less satisfied with their final decision. It seems that part of that stress involves feeling the pressure to make the ‘right’ choice.

So is locomotion-based decision making always the best, stress-free option? Not necessarily: the researchers suggest locomotion decision-making might be more suitable for smaller, everyday tasks, while assessment decision-making could be reserved for major life choices.

Interestingly, for one of the tests, participants were asked to read a text beforehand, which attempted to direct them towards assessment or locomotive decision making, and this seemed to have some effect: so in some cases, we might be able to reduce the stress of making choices.

How we make decisions is an incredibly complex process that psychologists are still trying to figure out, and there are all sorts of angles to approach the subject from, besides the regulatory mode theory the team used here.

There are the decisions we make based on habits, for example, as well as those that focus more on long-term or short-term thinking. A myriad of factors influence the decisions we finally end up making.

In this case, the researchers suggest their findings might have important implications for mental health and conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. If we can understand what triggers stress, we can hopefully treat it better.

“Because of the abundance of choices we face – from mundane menu selections to life-changing career alternatives – learning how to circumvent the stress that can result from over-assessing our options and being overly concerned with making the wrong choice may be an essential tool to effectively navigate our everyday lives,” the researchers conclude.

The research has been published in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology.

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