And why it doesn’t matter
Some people feel that they’re always screwing up while others are seemingly untouched by such self-doubt. The difference between them has nothing to do with how good their decision-making really is. We all make wrong decisions, all of the time. Understanding why won’t stop that, but it can make us feel better about it.
The good news is that if we seem to make lots of bad decisions that’s largely because we just don’t notice all the small, correct ones we make every day. Usually, you’ve picked the right clothing for the weather or occasion, a meal you like, the right route to you destination, a decent TV programme to watch. If you were to list every single choice you made, the vast majority would be good ones.
What makes us potentially over-estimate the number of difficult decisions and wrong choices we make is that it’s only when the best thing to do is not clear that we become acutely aware there is any choice at all. When you know what your favourite pizza is, ordering is easy: acute menu indecision only kicks in when your preference is uncertain.
The menu example is a good illustration of why most difficult decisions shouldn’t be anxiety-provoking. The only reason the choice is difficult is because there are two or more dishes which you want more or less equally, because you really like them all or because you’re in a dive where there’s a dead heat for least worst option. If that’s the case, the stakes are really low. If you choose “incorrectly” you’ll still get something which is almost as good as the “right” choice. Relax.
The principle to remember here sounds counter-intuitive: If the choice is difficult, you probably don’t need to worry about it. But it’s true. The exceptions are those cases where the difference between a right and wrong choice are significant, serious and largely unknown. Fortunately, such cases are rare, mainly confined to movies. Cut the wrong wire and the building gets blown up, take the wrong turning and you drive off a cliff. If we do face such choices, simply being aware that we cannot know what the right choice is can help calm us down. If we can’t know, we can’t be in control, and that’s it.
If the choice is difficult, you probably don’t need to worry about it.
In most cases, however, which choice you make matters a lot less than you think. Take even the big life decisions such as which college to go to, which job to take, or which home to buy or rent. Extreme outcomes tend to be already ruled out. For instance, if you’re going to get into a leading university, the differences between them are not going to be very large. If you have a certain budget for a home, the difference between the best and worst one you’ll get is not going be huge.
Most decision-making anxiety is the result of the mistaken belief that it really matters that you get it right when the difference in outcomes is actually minor. What makes your life go well or badly is mainly nothing to do with these choices at all. The fundamentals are health, your attitudes and your relationships. To the extent that our choices matter at all, they only tweak the life satisfaction rating. That you can go to a good college matters immeasurably more than which college you go to. That you can afford a home of this kind in this area matters much more than which one you actually take.
The difficulty of many decisions is the direct result of there being so little to choose between. If you had a choice between a tiny, dirty apartment and a beautiful house, it’s obvious which one you would pick. If you had a job you hated and had the offer of a much better one, again, it would be easy. But how do you decide between a good house and one that is good in different ways, or between one mid-ranked university and another? It’s only because the differences are so minor that the choice is so unclear.
Our unnecessary anxiety is compounded by the fact that there is often no “right” choice anyway. When there is little to choose between options, the margin of error resulting from uncertainty is greater than our ability to compute the difference. When you move home, for example, most of the things that could go wrong are beyond your control: noisy neighbours, structural problems, unforeseen problems paying the rent. Even what seems clear often isn’t really: the vibrant neighbourhood you found so attractive could turn out to be oppressively noisy; the tranquil countryside stifling and dull. How do you know until you get there?
So we have plenty of reasons to be less anxious about our decisions than we often are. How does that square with the sense many of us have that we get so many decisions wrong?
Sometimes it’s simply because we are wrong to think we know we were wrong. You may not like your new home but you’ll never know what life would have been like in the one you turned down. If you find yourself hating Oxford, you might have loathed Cambridge even more. To mix metaphors, the grass is always greener on the path not taken.
But the main reason we go wrong so often is that it’s statistically inescapable. Choices are hard when, on the basis of the inevitably incomplete knowledge we have, the merits of the competing options are too close to call. When there are two such options, getting it right is like tossing a coin. Go back to the restaurant. Which dish is actually better depends on things like how exactly it is prepared, who the chef is tonight and how they’re feeling. So if you were able to taste what you ordered and what you nearly ordered, the chances are you’d prefer your choice as often as you didn’t.
Once there are more than two options, it’s inevitable you’ll usually make a sub-optimal choice. With little to distinguish three options, each has a roughly 33% chance of being the best one. Go up to four options and it’s 25%.
Agonising over the “right” choice is a symptom, not a cause.
Normally, we’ll never know if our choice was the best one or not, since our choice cuts us off from experiencing the alternative. Being able to taste your companion’s dish is the exception, not the rule. But if we were rational, we wouldn’t try to convince ourselves that we had made the best choice, or worry that we had made the wrong one. We would simply accept that most of our choices will be sub-optimal and that’s ok, because a good choice doesn’t need to the best one. (By the way, my theory about wrong menu choices is that too often people order what they think they ought to be eating, not what they want to eat.)
Will appreciating all that’s been said here eliminate your decision anxiety? That’s unlikely. The truth is that we usually get anxious because some kinds of situations scare us. Agonising over the “right” choice is a symptom of this, not the cause. Even if you can convince yourself that the choice is not between not right and wrong, salvation and damnation, but between good and better (or perhaps bad and slightly worse), the prospect of a change of job, house or any other life situation can still be scary. But at least it can take away one dimension of fear to recognise that the choice matters a lot less than you think. It’s not the decision that’s scaring you, it’s that your life will be affected whatever you choose.
Julian Baggini is a writer and philosopher. His latest book is The Godless Gospel: Was Jesus a Great Moral Teacher? (Affiliate link)