5/29/11

Why Keeping Your Options Open Is Really, Really Bad Idea

Given the choice, would you prefer to make an iron-clad, no-turning-back decision, or one you could back out of if you needed to?   Does that seem like a stupid question?  I understand why it might, but bear with me – because it isn’t.

People overwhelmingly prefer reversible decisions to irreversible ones.  They believe it’s better to “keep your options open,” whenever possible.  They wait years before declaring a major, date someone for years before getting married, favor stores with a guaranteed return policy (think Zappos), and hire employees on a temporary basis (or use probationary periods), all in order to avoid commitments that can be difficult, or nearly impossible, to un-do. 

People believe that this is the best way to ensure their own happiness and success.  But people, as it turns out, are wrong. 

Let’s start with the happiness part.  Research by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, shows that reversible, keep-your-options-open decisions reliably lead to lower levels of satisfaction than irreversible ones.  In other words, we are significantly less happy with our choices when we can back out of them.

(For example, in one of Gilbert’s studies, people were asked to choose an art poster that they could keep.  Those who were told that they could change their mind and return it for a different poster in the next 30 days reported being less happy with their poster than those who had to pick a poster and stick with it.)

Why does keeping our options open make us less happy?  Because once we make a final, no-turning-back decision, the psychological immune system kicks in.  This is how psychologists like Gilbert refer to the mind’s uncanny ability to make us feel good about our decisions.  Once we’ve committed to a course of action, we stop thinking about alternatives.  Or, if we do bother to think about them, we think about how lousy they are compared to our clearly superior and awesome choice. 

Most of us have had to make a choice between two colleges, or job offers, or apartments.  You may have had to choose which candidate to hire for a job, or which vendor your company would engage for a project.  When you were making your decision, it was probably a tough one – every option had significant pros and cons.  But after you made that decision, did you ever wonder how you could have even considered the now obviously inferior alternative?  “Wow, I can’t believe I even thought about going to Yale, when Harvard is better in every way.”  (That’s just an example – I am neutral when it comes to Harvard vs. Yale.  I went to Penn, which incidentally was way better than those schools, but I digress…)

Human beings are particularly good at rearranging and restructuring our thoughts to create the most positive experience possible in any situation.  The psychological immune system protects us, to some extent, from the negative consequences of our choices – because after all, almost every choice has a downside.  The key to happiness is to dwell as little as possible on that downside.

When you keep your options open, however, you can’t stop thinking about the downside – because you’re still trying to figure out if you made the right choice.   The psychological immune system doesn’t kick in, and you’re left feeling less happy about whatever choice you end up making.

This brings us to the other problem with reversible decisions – new research shows that they don’t just rob you of happiness, they also lead to poorer performance.

Once again, it’s because thoughts related to making the right decision stay active in your mind when your options are open.    This places a rather hefty burden on your working memory, and it’s distracting.  When you’re still deciding what you should do, you don’t have the cognitive resources to devote yourself fully to what you’re actually doing.  Your attention wanders.  And as a result, your performance suffers.  (For instance, in one study, people who made a reversible decision were able to recall fewer correct answers on a subsequent task then those who made a choice they had to stick with.)

So keeping your options open leads to less happiness and success, not more.  Ironically, people don’t actually change their minds and revise decisions very often.  We just prefer having the option to do so, and that preference is costing us.

I’m not, for the record, saying reversible decisions are never beneficial. Obviously if you have no real basis for making a good choice in the first place and you’re just guessing, or if the consequences of your choice might end up killing someone, the option of a do-over is probably a good thing.

But assuming that your choice is carefully considered and you’ve weighed your options, you will be both happier and more successful if you make a decision, and don’t look back.

10 comments:

  1. This is a wonderful post... and a timely one for me. Thank you for this.

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  2. All I can say is Thank you , and hope that you understand how grateful I am for your very very good sense. I've been reading insincere mumbo jumbo self help for a very long while now, it is an absolute relief to fall upon your realistic advice! In keeping with this thread, I believe I will choose to follow you, and let the others fall away... obviously the best choice!

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  3. A very interesting topic. I can certainly see how sticking to one plan can ultimately lead to being more successful than constantly changing your mind. However, when the time comes that you do have to make a change it can be very difficult if you've only committed yourself down one path.

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  4. I am not sure about your interpretation of the happy-assertiveness factor. In fact, maybe is the other way around: maybe people that are naturally happy tend to be more assertive in their choices. That is, it is their nature what makes them assertive and not their choices what makes them happy.

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  5. Hi Bruni - In the studies I mentioned, the researchers manipulated whether or not the choice was reversible. So it was not that happy people made more permanent decisions, but that being asked to make a reversible or irreversible decision influenced satisfaction.

    Heidi

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  6. Hi Heidi,

    Have a read of this article:http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-willpower-paradox

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  7. Thanks for this article! With all due respect to Wray, who I admire enormously, I don't think the results of these studies suggest that we shouldn't be setting goals. I think they do show that having an open mind and considering obstacles and possibly means to the goal (asking 'Will I ...?" and thinking through that question's implications) allows people to set goals in a more adaptive way.

    Notice that Wray writes "those primed with the interrogative phrase “Will I?” expressed a much greater commitment to exercise regularly than did those primed with the declarative phrase “I will.”

    If they have greater commitment to exercise regularly, then they HAVE committed to a goal! The "open mind" is happening before that - when they are setting the goal for themselves. It's influencing HOW they think of the goal, not whether or not they have one.

    Thanks so much for bringing that piece to my attention!

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  8. I find the results of the first study unconvincing. When asked how happy they were with their choice, the fact that people who didn't have the option of returning claimed they were more happy just had to justify to both themselves and their interviewer that they made the right choice -- classic cognitive dissonance.

    I don't disagree with the second point ("having a clear goal/objective in mind makes you better at it"), but I'd be careful what sort of conclusions I draw from it. In your second paragraph, you list decisions were people commonly keep their options open for as long as possible -- in every one of these cases, doing that is a good idea.

    I think one point we can take from this information, though, is "In situations where it really doesn't matter what you choose, just choose right away." Otherwise, the emotional turmoil you experience from having that choice on your plate is nothing compared to the potential life-long consequences of choosing rashly.

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  9. Actually, if you are using cognitive dissonance theory to make your predictions, you should make the opposite prediction from the one you made. Choice has been shown to enhance dissonance - in fact, dissonance does not occur without the perception that one freely chose one's actions. The people who had the option to return their poster and chose to keep it actually had MORE choice (an initial choice and then the option to re-choose) and therefore a greater need to justify than people who had to choose once and stick with it. So a cognitive dissonance account would predict that people who were given the option of a reversible decision and kept it anyway would like their poster the most. The study shows they like theirs the least. So you can't actually explain those results through dissonance.

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  10. I agree with the last Anon that it is cognitive dissonance which motivates the first group to be satisfied with their choice. What's going on with the second group is more complicated. From your description of the experiment, it isn't clear at what point the researchers measured the groups' overall happiness. Was it within the 30-day return window, or after? Naturally, I would not expect cognitive dissonance to be working for the second group while the option to reverse their decision is still open. But your comment above suggests that even after the deadline had passed, they were still not as happy with their choice as the first group. I would be curious to know whether the second group was happier after the 30-day window than during it. If so, I would ascribe the improvement to cognitive dissonance.

    I think it is oversimplifying things to say that the second group had "more choice," simply because they were given the option to change their minds. There is still only one choice involved: which art poster to take home (presumedly, they were presented with the same number of posters as the first group). But the effect of being presented with a choice and given the option to reverse it is bound to foster self-doubt, which decreases happiness. It's the classic, "Is that your final answer?" catchphrase from "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" Just being asked to make the same decision twice subtly creates the illusion of greater importance and hence, greater risk. It also makes us second-guess ourselves, wondering if the person asking us knows something we don't. Even after the window for changing our minds has passed, the doubt persists. We're waiting for the axe to fall. Cognitive dissonance still kicks in, but probably not as strongly as in those who were never given a reason to doubt.

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